Spectrum has once again become a hot topic in telecom. And in what is perhaps the oddest twist in this season’s telenovela Spectrum Wars is that on most of these items I’m in agreement with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Hey, gotta mix it up or the ratings are going to sag.
Specifically, we have 3 fairly big items on the table to resolved over the next month or two (hopefully!) as part of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai’s “5G Fast Plan.” While I am less than persuaded by the 5G hype and the “OMG! China! We must deploy NOW!!!!” these issues have lingered long enough that we bloody well should resolve them and get moving and deploying.
If you follow spectrum policy at all, you will have heard about the C-Band Auction and the 5.9 GHz fight. Hopefully I’ll have time to blog more about them. But you would be forgiven if you hadn’t heard much about the fight over opening the 6 GHz band for an unlicensed underlay. “Underlay” means you allow unlicensed users to operate in the same band as licensed users on a non-interfering basis. While this may seem odd to you young ‘uns, underlays used to be the entirety of unlicensed spectrum. The first authorization for unlicensed was entirely an underlay. No one dreamed of providing a band entirely for unlicensed. Remember Mr. Microphone or your iTrip that let you play your iPod over your FM radio? That’s an underlay in the FM band.
Opening the 6 GHz band is incredibly important for the future of WiFi, particularly WiFi 6. that makes it super important for its own sake. But if you believe we need to “win the race to 5G,” then getting the 6 GHz unlicensed underlay up and running as quickly as possible is outrageously super urgent. As we keep discovering every time we “G up,” we need a new allocation of unlicensed spectrum alongside the new allocation of licensed spectrum to create space for the new stimulated demand. Despite spending the 00s bashing each others’ brains in (and still finding some die hards who hate either licensed or unlicensed), most folks now agree that licensed and unlicensed spectrum are synergistic, and you need a good allocation of both to keep winning (for whatever value of winning) the spectrum race. USA! USA!
Unfortunately, two things invariably happen when the FCC is considering spectrum for unlicensed use. First, all the existing users show up and say: “no no NO! No changes in our spectrum neighborhood! We don’t care how much engineering you do. Allowing unlicensed devices will mean terrible, terrible things and our vital services will crash and burn and everyone will hate you forever.” The other thing that happens is that CTIA, which represents the major wireless carriers and a good chunk of the rest of the industry, shows up and says “hey! If you can use that for unlicensed spectrum, you can use it even better for licensed spectrum!”
So no surprise, CTIA has shown up in the 6 GHz band proceeding to demand a chunk of the 6 GHz band get auctioned as well. Setting aside that CTIA took half the CBRS band away for auction in 2018, gobbled up the remaining 2.5 GHz band from the non-commercial community in 2019, and is now getting over half the C-Band from the satellite community, they insist that a “fair” compromise would be to take half the 6 GHz allocation necessary for WiFi 6 and auction that as well. While CTIA’s voraciousness has a charming consistency to it, taking half the 6 GHz band for auction would be a phenomenally bad idea for a bunch of reasons. Aside from destroying a substantial amount of the utility of WiFi 6 by eliminating half the channels space (the gain/loss is exponential, not arithmetic; losing channels degrades you much more than simply subtracting the individual channel capacity), it would require relocating the existing 6 GHz licensed users (utility companies) and reorganizing the proposed new home for the existing utility company services — the neighboring 7.125 GHz band. That band currently houses lots of complicated top secret DoD operations, which makes the subsequent reorganization and repacking a tad difficult.
CTIA’s chief argument to Congress is — no shocker here — money. Spectrum auctions generate cash, although the history of spectrum auctions shows that trying to predict how much cash is almost impossible in any rational way. But for the reasons I will explain below, even if we take CTIA’s estimates of a 6 GHz auction generating $20 billion or so, the government would not actually receive anything close to that revenue. Unlike the C-Band auction, which has fairly predictable costs for relocating the existing users (and some extra revenue to compensate/bribe the satellite guys), relocating the existing 6 GHz users would cost some unpredictable amount of billions which will seriously reduce the net revenue of the auction available for deficit reduction or rural broadband or whatever. this assumes, of course, that the military even can reconfigure its systems to share with licensed use by utilities.
I get into all the reasons trying to squeeze in a last minute auction of 6 GHz is a bad idea below. . . .