US frees up more mid-band spectrum as C-Band auction falls short

While the auction for C-Band airwaves is not living up to analyst’s financial expectations, the US Department of Defense has agreed to share its mid-band hording with private industry for 5G.

Now that the insistence mmWave will power the 5G evolution has been relegated to the gossip columns, the US is rapidly freeing spectrum for the telecoms operators. The CBRS auction is entering its final stages, albeit the interest is not as financially rewarding as the FCC might have hoped, and with new spectrum from the Department of Defense vacating more airwaves, the telecoms operators are practically swimming in spectrum.

Announced by the White House, the Department of Defense will work alongside the FCC to free up 100 MHz of spectrum in the valuable mid-band range. This will create a contiguous band of 530 MHz from 3550-3980 MHz. With the power of mid-band spectrum already demonstrable in other markets, this is a very useful position to have nurtured.

“I commend the President and Department of Defense for today’s announcement that the 3.45-3.55 GHz band will be made available for commercial 5G deployment,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “This is a key milestone in securing United States leadership in 5G.

“Together with the spectrum being made available for 5G in the C-band as well as the 3.5 GHz band, we are now on track to have a 530-megahertz swath of mid-band spectrum available for 5G from 3.45 to 3.98 GHz. The FCC looks forward to moving quickly to adopt service rules for the 3.45 GHz band and then hold an auction to bring this prime mid-band spectrum to market.”

The availability of this spectrum should be considered a very encouraging sign for the US digital economy. In years gone, the industry had stubbornly insisted mmWave was key, while more recently the low-band waves have featured in advertising very heavily.

A comprehensive 5G offering will have low-, mid- and high-band spectrum licences, as each has its own advantages, but mid-band is critical. Today, telecoms operators could probably get by without low- or high-band, as long as there is a healthy holding of mid-band spectrum. All three should of course be sought, but the compromise between extended coverage and increased download speed in the 3 GHz spectrum range has been identified as an excellent entry point for the 5G economy.

The absence of mid-band spectrum has been identified by the authorities in recent years, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly has been championing the cause, though it seems the right people are listening.

Aside from the CBRS auction and the Department of Defense freeing-up an additional 100 MHz, there are also initiatives to vacate more of the airwaves in the 3.1-3.55 GHz range.

The lower end of the 3 GHz spectrum is a bit more complicated, as while it is occupied there are no official occupants or usecases assigned. This usually means the intelligence services or military are calling it home, which might make collaboration more difficult. This is a complication, but progress has certainly been made to ensure the US 5G experience is at least on par with the rest of the world.

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