FCC Should Free Spectrum for 5G

5G is the future of mobile broadband. Freeing up spectrum to facilitate the use of the airwaves is more important than ever. To that end, a few years ago, a coalition of companies and trade associations urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to propose making rules that would allow them to use their existing spectrum licenses to provide wireless Internet connectivity. But there’s a wrinkle: Their spectrum licenses, in the 12.2-12.7 GHz band, are also allocated to satellite providers.

The FCC should issue a notice of proposed rulemaking to explore the question of how to best use this spectrum, given its promising potential for consumers. Last month, CEI filed comments with the FCC encouraging the agency to move forward with this proceeding. As we explained, we strongly support the agency’s longstanding goal of ensuring that its rules allow for spectrum to be put to its highest and best use.

Currently, a valuable 500 MHz chunk of spectrum is allocated to companies for use in one-way wireless digital communications. But the same spectrum is also assigned to fixed satellite services. The FCC’s rules prevent the former set of licensees, many of which belong to the MVDDS 5G Coalition, from providing mobile broadband service.

Meanwhile, satellite carriers are developing potentially groundbreaking services using large swaths of spectrum, including but not limited to the 12.2-12.7 GHz band. Most notably, SpaceX has launched over 700 satellites (and counting) aimed at providing speedy Internet access to unserved and underserved consumers in the United States and around the world. This impressive effort will, ideally, make affordable broadband available to millions worldwide.

But the FCC might be able to issue rules that allow MVDDS licensees to use their licenses for 5G broadband in a way that coexists with satellite broadband. Whether this is feasible presents a complicated technical question that remains hotly contested. Importantly, the MVDDS licensees invested over $118 million at auction to acquire their licenses, while the satellite companies do not hold exclusive licenses to operate on this band.

Ultimately, spectrum scarcity harms consumers in the form of higher prices. The FCC’s ongoing auction of spectrum in the C-band brings that auction’s total bidding to over $50 billion. The more spectrum the agency can free up for 5G, the less providers must spend to acquire spectrum licenses—translating into more affordable 5G services for consumers.

Neither the MVDDS licensees nor satellite companies have exclusive rights to use the 500 MHz of spectrum at issue as they see fit. Instead, the FCC’s job is to decide whether to adjust its rules to accommodate the changes urged by the MVDDS 5G Coalition. We urge the FCC to solicit comments by proposing rules that would allow 5G broadband in this spectrum band. The FCC can then decide whether consumers would likely realize greater benefits if the 500 MHz at issue were primarily used for terrestrial 5G broadband services—or for satellite broadband.