My Insanely Long Field Guide To The C-Band Spectrum Fight, And Why This Won’t End In December.

Like most everything else at the FCC these days, problems that have relatively simple and straightforward solutions turn into horrible complicated messes. Take the C-Band, a slice of spectrum that in the U.S. lies between 3.7 GHz and 4.2 GHz. When first authorized for commercial satellite use back in the day, these frequencies were considered far too high to have much value for terrestrial use. These days, of course, 3.7 GHz is considered prime “midband” spectrum perfect for mobile 5G deployment, and sits right on top of the CBRS spectrum the FCC intends to auction next June. So wireless carriers want the FCC to repurpose some or all of it for 5G. In addition, a bunch of folks (including my employer Public Knowledge) support opening up portions of the band in rural areas for point-to-point backhaul (on a secondary basis, which means the backhaul guys need to protect the incumbents from interference).

 

The logical and straightforward thing to do would be to treat this like we did the 700 MHz auction/DTV transition over ten years ago. Tell the C-Band guys “sorry guys, we’re shrinking your available spectrum from 500 MHz to 200 MHz and taking back the other 300 MHz for auction. We’re also going to allow point-to-point backhaul on a non-interfering basis because that will really help rural ISPs. Don’t worry, we’ll set aside some of the auction money for a transition fund.” Sure, the incumbent licensees would scream (they always do), but this is a fairly proven solution that worked well to get us spectrum for 4G (and raised $20 bn for the Treasury) so why not do it again?

 

Or, if you really want to bribe the incumbent licensees, we could do an incentive auction. I’m not a fan, especially when it’s folks who got their licenses for free. But fine. We crossed that bridge awhile ago with the broadcasters, the authority for incentive auctions is now part of 47 U.S.C. 309(j), let’s just use it.

 

But nooooooo . . . . . This FCC in particular seems to love delaying everything while it rethinks all the options so it can come up with its very own wrong decision. Just as the FCC delayed deployment of the CBRS spectrum by 2 years by reopening that proceeding to redo the rules at the behest of the big carriers, now the FCC apparently wants to try a “private auction” under which the current holders of the satellite licenses (as represented by a group of licensees called “C-Band Alliance” or “CBA”) will go off behind closed doors, “auction” the public spectrum themselves, and then promise to give a piece of the money back to the FCC.

 

After snoozing through this for over a year, members of Congress have suddenly woken up and made this all interesting. Why? Analysts estimate that an auction of 300 MHz of C-Band spectrum would yield $50-60 billion in revenue. If the government conducts the auction, then it gets to credit $60 bn as a “payfor” to the budget for things like rural broadband or Trump’s border wall (assuming the Congressional Budget Office, aka CBO, agrees with the estimate). Notably, Senator Kennedy (R-LA) of the appropriations Committee had a little hearing with Chairman Pai where he politely but firmly made it clear to Pai that he thinks a private sale is a dumb idea and he wants a public auction. When that apparently did not work to move the needle, Kennedy jumped over Pai’s head and took the matter to President Trump, although there is no indication that Trump has decided to do anything on the matter.

 

Meanwhile, in the House, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), Chair of the House Telecom Subcommittee, dropped a bipartisan bill, the C-Band Act, that would require the FCC to do an auction. Doyle followed this up with a hearing where the majority of the Members in attendance made it clear they wanted the FCC to run an auction so they could use that money to pay for rural broadband.

 

To understand why the distinction between private sale and public auction matters so much to Congress, you need to understand one of the peculiarities of how Congressional budgeting works and and terms such as “CBO score,” “paygo” and “payfor.” To state the matter quickly, if the FCC holds an auction, CBO can score the projected revenue of the auction as part of its annual budgeting process and that projected revenue can be used to “pay for” other projects under Congress’ “pay as you go” (aka “paygo”) rules. But if the licensees have a private auction, there is no CBO score even if the licensees make a voluntary donation to the FCCSo from the perspective of Congress trying to find money to do stuff, the difference is not between $60 bn and something less than $60 bn. The difference is between $60 bn and zeroGranted, no one in Congress appears to worry about deficits these days, but as Senator Kennedy observed, that money could fund “several other government projects (including the wall),” and $60 bn is not a small amount of money whether you want to fund the wall (like Kennedy) or rural broadband (like the House E&C).

 

But what can Congress do, especially with Chairman Ajit Pai apparently determined to give C-Band Alliance what they want (especially now that AT&T and Verizon have supported C-Band)? Funny thing, we had a similar issue back in 2002 when the Powell FCC tried to move ahead with an unauthorized incentive auction, and Congress stopped that cold despite FCC authorization of the auction.

 

I explain below . . .

 

Continue reading

Stoping the 5G Digital Divide Before It Happens.

About 10 years ago, the telcos and the cablecos argued that they needed “franchise reform” to deploy fiber to the home high speed broadband. Anyone offering cable services (which, at the time, were a necessary part of any bundle including broadband — yup, times change) needs to get a franchise. At the time, all franchises were local. They also usually required the franchisee to serve the entire franchise area with same quality service. This requirement to serve the entire service area with the same quality service is called an “anti-redlining” provision. It is designed to ensure that providers of service do not avoid traditionally unserved communities (particularly communities of color), who were on the wrong side of the “red line” drawn by real estate developers to separate the whites only neighborhoods from the “colored” neighborhoods. (For more info, see this clip from Adam Ruins The Suburbs.) While we no longer have laws mandating segregation, the combination of stereotypes about urban neighborhoods dominated by people of color, combined with the unfortunate economic reality that non-whites systemically earn lower incomes than whites often means that providers simply ignore these neighborhoods when they offer services and focus investment on whiter (and wealthier) areas. Anti-redlining laws are designed to prevent that from happening.

 

To return back to the mid-00s, telecos (later joined by cable cos demanding a level playing field) pushed states to reform their franchise laws to (a) replace local franchising with state franchising; and, (b) eliminate most of the requirements of the franchise — including eliminating the anti-redlining provisions. The carriers argued that OF COURSE they intended to provide FTTH everywhere, including communities of color. But if they had to deal with local franchise authorities dictating deployment schedules and demanding all sorts of conditions to get a franchise, then — gosh darn it — they just would not be able to invest in FTTH no matter how much they wanted to do so. Although I and my then employer Media Access Project worked with the handful of local and national orgs fighting repeal of local franchises generally and anti-redlining provisions specifically, we lost bigly.

 

Today, I am once again feeling the Cassandrefreude. As predicted 10 years ago, in the absence of anti-redlining provisions, carriers have not invested in upgrading their broadband capacity in communities of color at anything close to the same rate they have upgraded in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. As a result, the urban digital divide is once again growing. It’s not just that high-speed broadband is ridiculously expensive, although this is also serious barrier to adoption in urban areas. It’s also that in many low-income and predominantly non-white neighborhoods, speeds on par with those offered in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods are not even available.

 

This problem is further compounded by the belief that we have solved the problem of urban deployment and the only places where deployment (as opposed to simply cost of access) remains an issue is in rural America. But while the problems in rural America are very real, we need to recognize that the digital divide problem is actually growing in urban areas as carriers rush to provide gigabit speed in some neighborhoods while leaving other neighborhoods in the digital dust.

 

With the focus on 5G deployment, however, we have a rare opportunity to avoid repeating past mistakes. Just once, just once, we could actually take steps to prevent the inequality before it happens.

Continue reading

So What The Heck Does 5G Actually Do? And Is It Worth What The Carriers Are Demanding?

It’s become increasingly impossible to talk about spectrum policy without getting into the fight over whether 5G is a miracle technology that will end poverty, war and disease or an evil marketing scam by wireless carriers to extort concessions in exchange for magic beans. Mind you, most people never talk about spectrum policy at all — so they are spared this problem in the first place. But with T-Mobile and Sprint now invoking 5G as a central reason to let them merge, it’s important for people to understand precisely what 5G actually doesUnfortunately, when you ask most people in Policyland what 5G actually does and how it works, the discussion looks a lot like the discussion in Hitchhikers Guide To the Galaxy where Deep Thought announces that the answer to Life the Universe and Everything is “42.”

 

So while not an engineer, I have spent the last two weeks or so doing a deep dive on what, exactly does 5G actually do — with a particular emphasis on the recently released 3GPP standard (Release 15) that everyone is celebrating as the first real industry standard for 5G. My conclusion is that while the Emperor is not naked, that is one Hell of a skimpy thong he’s got on.

 

More precisely, the bunch of different things that people talk about when they say “5G”: millimeter wave spectrum, network slicing, and something called (I am not making this up) “flexible numerology” are real. They represent improvements in existing wireless technology that will enhance overall efficiency and thus add capacity to the network (and also reduce latency). But, as a number of the more serious commentators (such as Dave Burstien over here) have pointed out, we can already do these things using existing LTE (plain old 4G). Given the timetable for development and deployment of new 5G network technology, it will be at least 5 years before we see more than incremental improvement in function and performance.

 

Put another way, it would be like calling the adoption of a new version of Wi-Fi “5G Wi-Fi.” (Which I am totally going to do from now on, btw, because why not?)

 

I elaborate more below . . .

Continue reading