Spectrum authority violation affects broadband and 5G strategies

Since Congress allowed the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to auction spectrum to expire nearly four months ago, the deployment of broadband and the expansion of 5G capabilities may be hampered. Spectrum auctions allow for the expansion of broadcast television, mobile phone, and broadband coverage by commercial providers. The FCC is currently unable to issue spectrum licenses gained in previous auctions, and the funding to replace Chinese communications equipment is at risk.

“We’re in a situation where spectrum policy is effectively at a standstill because auction authority has lapsed,” said Nick Ludlum, senior vice president for communications at CTIA, a trade group representing the wireless communications industry. “There is no clear path at this point. There’s lots of discussions going on, but there’s no expectation that that’s going to be resolved imminently.”

T-Mobile won spectrum licenses worth more than $300 million at an auction in August 2022. Jessica Rosenworcel, chairwoman of the FCC, states that the agency cannot disseminate these licenses in addition to others.

“We are right now tying ourselves in knots trying to figure out how to get these licenses out, and the precedent we have here is complicated because issuing these licenses now could violate the Anti-Deficiency Act, which is a criminal statute,” she said at a June House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing with the FCC commissioners. 

However, some subcommittee members did not find her explanation sufficient.

“We all know that spectrum is the gold — 18 karat gold,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., during the hearing. “Nothing moves without it. A carrier paid over $300 million for that last August. That’s going to come up to a year pretty soon. It’s stunning to me that someone pays for something, they don’t get it.”

Eshoo asked Rosenworcel if the FCC would contemplate issuing the licenses under a special temporary authority, but the chairwoman stated that, due to the lapse in auction authority, such a move could potentially violate the law. In a blog post published in April 2023, T-Mobile’s president of technology, Neville Ray, advocated for the FCC to issue STAs, highlighting the fact that many of the licenses cover rural areas.

“T-Mobile has built out the towers and radios needed to make use of this spectrum in many areas of the country. If we were given STAs today, we could light up many of these markets in a matter of days. … The only thing separating nearly 50 million Americans from enhanced capacity, a huge speed boost and world-class 5G is the FCC issuing STAs,” he wrote, noting that home internet would be available to many families who never had a choice in broadband providers.

Public Knowledge, a digital privacy-focused public interest group, and four former FCC general counsels wrote in separate letters to the agency that, despite the expiration of the auction authority, the FCC could still issue the licenses.

Replacing Chinese devices

In May, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted unanimously in favor of legislation to extend the authority to conduct auctions until September 30, 2026, and to direct billions of spectrum auction proceeds toward broadband expansion and Next Generation 911, which would allow the public to send photos, videos, and text messages to first responders.

The measure would also allocate proceeds to cover a shortfall of nearly $3.1 billion in an FCC program to reimburse communications service providers for the replacement of communications equipment or services that pose threats to national security, particularly from China. Rosenworcel stated in letters to congressional committee leaders that the FCC will be unable to fully reimburse these providers if Congress does not pass the legislation soon or otherwise find a means to close the funding gap. The deadline for program applicants to submit at least one reimbursement claim to the agency is July 15. The providers must then remove and replace the communications apparatus and services within a year of receiving the initial distribution of reimbursement funds.

“This is a serious problem, especially for rural America,” said Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Bob Latta, R-Ohio, at the June hearing with the FCC commissioners. “Without these funds, small carriers could be forced to shut down their networks, leaving their customers without a connection.” 

Rosenworcel wrote that the FCC may be able to extend the deadline. A Republican Energy and Commerce Committee aide stated that the committee is collaborating with House leadership to bring the bill to the floor. However, even if the House approves the bill, it must still advance through the Senate. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, told Communications Daily in June that she supports the House bill, while ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, stated that it “misses the mark.” Particularly, he targeted the auction proceeds designated for broadband expansion, which he deemed “unnecessary and redundant.”

The House spectrum bill expressly allocates funds for “middle mile” broadband, which connects local networks to national and regional networks. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which allots $1 billion for middle mile grants, may alleviate some of this demand. In addition, the Biden administration announced last week grants totaling $42 billion for states to expand high-speed internet access.

However, according to CTIA’s Ludlum, the FCC’s lack of auction authority impedes providers’ efforts to open up spectrum for commercial use of wireless and 5G technology.

“The path that we travel in order to make spectrum available is a multiyear process. The providers and the FCC take years to study this until it’s brought to auction and then cleared and then made available for use,” he said. “This effectively has brought to a halt the industry’s ability to expand coverage, to anticipate and plan for increased demand, which is skyrocketing, to make sure that the wireless networks we count on today are as reliable and secure and robust and high-speed as we need them to be a year from now, two years from now, three years from now and so on.” 

Spectrum auctions conducted by the FCC have been a financial benefit for the federal government. According to agency records, they have raised more than $258 billion for the Treasury Department since 1994. Kathleen Burke, policy counsel for Public Knowledge, argued that the expiration of the authority demonstrates how an emphasis on raising funds has diverted attention from sound policy.

“This is a great example of why and how spectrum auctions have led to this politicization of spectrum policy in the U.S. because of the high level of revenue that you get from spectrum auctions,” she said. “What we’ve seen more and more is that trying to collect as many dollars as possible for the federal government has become the end goal of some of these spectrum auction policies. And that has not always been the best kind of approach to making sure that spectrum is meeting the needs of the nation.”

Source: Roll Call

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