Amid an ongoing debate over spectrum in the lower 3GHz band, speakers this week at a US wireless industry event – including two members of the House – urged Congress to act.

At the CTIA 5G Summit this week in Washington attendees offered scathing reviews of Congress’s failure to restore the FCC spectrum-auction authority that it let lapse last March.

One speaker’s stinging verdict: “absolutely unbelievable.”

The slightly more forgiving assessment of another: “an avoidable failure.”

Both calls for Congress to do better came, figuratively speaking, from inside the House in the form of speeches at CTIA’s 5G Summit by Reps. Bob Latta (R-OH) and Doris Matsui (D-CA).

“That’s unacceptable, and we’ve got to move forward,” Latta said after his “absolutely unbelievable” assessment. “We should also be fast-tracking the spectrum that we know is out there, such as the lower 3GHz.” 

Matsui – who with Latta sent a letter to NTIA administrator Alan Davidson and DoD chief information officer John Sherman in February asking for clarity about plans for the lower 3GHz spectrum currently occupied by the military – seconded those points. 

“Congress needs a deal to reassert auction authority immediately,” she said.

The absence of the auction authority that the FCC had exercised for the previous three decades over a series of Congressional renewals has shadowed spectrum-policy debates for the last 14 months. 

And at CTIA’s event, most speakers weighed in with their own calls to end the impasse that’s relegated such planning steps as the National Spectrum Strategy released by the Biden administration in November into something closer to thought exercises.

Differing views on DSS

But speakers then parted company about how new spectrum might best be freed up for auction.

CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker, for instance, touted the advantages to carriers of full-power spectrum, auctioned without usage restrictions. But she also put in a plug for the DoD’s notion of a dynamic-spectrum-sharing (DSS) moonshot.

That term covers a vision of DSS beyond the carefully monitored geographic restrictions that allowed the Pentagon to hand over 3450-3550MHz spectrum for a $21.9 billion auction in late 2021. It’s also different from the DSS technology employed in the early days of 5G. Broadly, the Pentagon’s vision for DSS would provide sufficient flexibility to support new commercial possibilities in the lower 3GHz band without sandbagging established military uses.

“We can and should push forward on the moonshot that is dynamic sharing,” Baker said. 

A Pentagon representative, lending a perspective absent from last year’s CTIA summit, described the DSS moonshot as a principal issue for the DoD. 

“It would be short on our part, collectively, to not propose win-win solutions for the national leaders,” said Lt. Gen. David T. Isaacson, chief information officer at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “This is an opportunity for us to innovate together.” 

He did not mention the possibility of a paid-for relocation of some of the military’s airborne radar operations as part of a lower 3GHz deal, something DoD CIO John Sherman allowed in February at an NTIA event. 

Isaacson also did not recite the restrictive sharing conditions – such as giving the Pentagon “regulatory primacy” over lower 3GHz – proposed in the DoD’s Emerging Mid-Band Radar Spectrum Sharing (EMBRSS) report, released in redacted form in April.

But most carrier executives speaking at the event held out for full-power spectrum, brushing aside the DSS optimism of such newer industry entrants as cable operators looking to augment resold carrier spectrum and the patent-rich startup Digital Global Systems (DGS).

Laurent Therivel, president and CEO of UScellular, said the industry needs “significantly more licensed full-power spectrum” and suggested that a restoration of auction authority should designate specific bands.

Kyle Malady, CEO of Verizon Business, said his employer was “working along with everybody else on DSS” but sounded most skeptical about its commercial viability.

He alluded to Verizon’s subpar experience with DSS earlier in its 5G rollout, characterizing its performance as “Well, it’ll work now or it might not work tomorrow.”

Malady’s thumbs-down: “Nobody’s going to invest and put their critical operation on that.”

Funding possibilities are fundamental

What’s at stake isn’t just carrier-buildout possibilities years from now – Yossi Cohen, president and CEO of Ericsson North America, said a best-case scenario for deploying new spectrum in a DSS scenario was 2027 – but near-term uses for the money that could be generated by a new spectrum auction.

Matsui pointed to renewing the now-expiring funding for the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). She said the money could also close the $3 billion gap between the cash that has been allocated to carriers to rip out untrusted network gear from Huawei and ZTE and the carriers’ own estimates of their costs.

“Unless we have affordability, we can’t have the connectivity that we need,” Matsui said of ACP, which will see its last allocations go out in May. “There’s just too much on the line to allow this program to expire.”

A recent bill introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) would cover both funding shortfalls – $3 billion for rip and replace, $7 billion for ACP – with money to be raised in future spectrum auctions.

Speaking after the CTIA event, Public Knowledge SVP Harold Feld voiced skepticism over the odds of Cantwell’s bill passing despite what he called its construction as “a traditional compromise among members with enough popular spending projects to grease the wheels.”

On Tuesday evening, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a smaller-scale measure as an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill. This legislation would provide the same $3 billion for rip and replace but grant $1 billion less for ACP while tightening its eligibility – and it wouldn’t renew FCC auction authority.

Instead, it would only allow the commission to re-auction certain frequencies that it’s already put up for bid.

Feld blamed the ongoing delay in renewing the FCC’s auction authority on rising resistance among federal agencies to seeing their spectrum taken. At the DoD, the issue is exacerbated due to the classified nature of some of its operations.

“It’s increasingly expensive to try to shove all of these federal uses into increasingly smaller bands,” he warned. “This is not a sustainable way to keep going.”

And with this spectrum squabbling now surfacing between the commerce and armed-services committees in each chamber of Congress – and the latter more open to give the DoD a veto over future spectrum applications – Feld doesn’t see the climate for collaboration warming up soon.

Feld’s conclusion: “If the politics are broken, it’s easier to stop something than to let something go.”

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