Congress asks FCC to slow down 5G acceleration plans

24 Democrat members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to delay a vote on a Declaratory Ruling which would dilute local Government’s role in 5G.

Although those in the industry will cringe at the thought of another delay, the reasoning behind this one is certainly valid. In short, local Governments have enough on their plates dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Opinions on changes to the bureaucratic process for telecoms network deployment is not something which can be given full attention at this time.

“We are especially troubled by the burden responding to this Declaratory Ruling will place on local governments that are rightfully focused right now on combatting the ongoing coronavirus pandemic,” the letter states.

“Likewise, we worry that if this Declaratory Ruling does not benefit from meaningful input from local governments, the result could undermine municipalities’ ability to balance their responsibilities to public safety and community design with their desire to ensure access to affordable wireless networks and the next generation services.”

What remains to be seen is whether Pai and the FCC take this request on board. There have been broader political requests to offer more time and flexibility on consultation periods, but as the FCC is attempting to dilute the power and influence of local Government authorities, does it actually care about the opinion submissions?

The vote in question here, set to take place on June 9, aims to address several areas and ease the bureaucratic burdens which are placed on telecoms companies while upgrading existing networks. There are three areas which will be introduced in this document:

  1. A shot-clock for decision making for the local authorities
  2. Redefining what would be considered ‘substantial change’ to existing infrastructure, and therefore, what upgrades need to go through the application process
  3. Remove requirements for additional environmental impact studies for some work

The idea is to address a pain-point in the telecoms industry; burdensome bureaucracy. Applications and studies will of course always have their place, but there has been a worry too much red-tape has been introduced to the sector. Telcos complain it is time-consuming, cumbersome and expensive. It slows down network deployment, which will have to be accelerated as the country enters the 5G era.

This is of course an on-going challenge for the telecoms industry, and it is by no means limited to the US. Bureaucracy is a challenge all over the world as the balance between state oversight and corporate freedom is found. The FCC has identified this challenge and is attempting to empower the industry.

The request for a delay to the vote will not be well-received by the industry, however. The US might have been one of the first countries to launch 5G services, it is very debatable who was actually first, but it has since slipped down the pecking order. If it is to retain a leadership position, this will have to be corrected, and at some point, the US telcos will have to react to the aggressive deployment strategies from Chinese counterparts.

US path to mid-band spectrum not as simple as some make it seem

Despite many proclamations and posturing during the development years of 5G, mmWave is not living up to expectations, but securing valuable mid-band assets is becoming an increasingly complex project.

As it stands in the US market, T-Mobile US has access to 2.1 GHz spectrum to deliver 5G services. These assets were accessible due to the recently approved merger with Sprint and offers a significant advantage over Verizon and AT&T, both of whom are still operating in the high-frequency airwaves, the mmWave, which delivers high-speed and low coverage for an overall substandard experience.

Over the next 12-18 months, theoretically, more mid-band spectrum should be made available to the likes of Verizon and AT&T, as well as Dish as it expands its offering, through three separate spectrum auctions. However, there is still plenty which can go wrong in the meantime according to Chris Pearson, President of 5G Americas.

“If history shows us anything it is that we have not been very successful at co-operation,” Pearson said during a call with

What Pearson is referring to here is collaboration between private industry and public organisations to either harmonise spectrum usage or clearing the bands to offer more power to the mobile service providers. There are success stories, clearing the 1700-2100 MHz airwaves is one, but these outcomes are seemingly more the exception rather than the rule.

The issue with spectrum is simple. High frequencies offer exceptional download speeds but very poor coverage, while at the other end with low-frequency bands a telco can offer excellent coverage, but the download speeds and latency will be woeful. This is why mid-band assets are so important, it is a more palatable compromise between speed and coverage, a mobile experience which can be sold as an upgrade to customers.

When we asked readers about how important the mid-band airwaves are 68% said without these assets it is impossible to deliver an attractive 5G service. Only 3% said the industry should be paying more attention to mmWave, and 8% believed mid-band spectrum is critical for the moment but its importance would fade behind mmWave eventually.

“Can we move along without it,” Pearson said. “Absolutely. But for the long-term we will need more spectrum.”

As Pearson highlights, there are three spectrum auctions on the horizon which are worth paying attention to. At the end of July, the ‘CBRS’ band at 3.5 GHz will make 150 MHz of spectrum available to the industry. In December, the C-Band airwaves (3.7-4.2 GHz) should be cleared up to make an additional 280 MHz of spectrum available. And the NCIA (NATO Communications and Information Agency) is currently producing a report to free up more assets in the 3.1-3.55 GHz range.

Theoretically, there should be plenty of spectrum available for the mobile network operators to deliver a comprehensive 5G solution, though this is under the assumption that everything runs smoothly.

Firstly, the ‘CBRS’ auction has already been delayed once. It should go ahead of course, but there is always a risk.

Secondly, the C-Band auction, scheduled to take place in December, is currently under threat from legal action. Several smaller satellite broadcasting companies who are being asked to vacate and/or move operations in these airwaves are kicking up a fuss. The aim is to shift the satellite operators in the 3.7-4.2 GHz range into a consolidated 200 MHz block, which would offer plenty of room for the telcos to play around it, but there are dissenters.

PSSI Global Services has filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia arguing the FCC is crippling the entire industry by forcing through the changes in this spectrum band. Should this legal challenge gather momentum or spin-off into different directions, it could impact the availability of assets in the C-Band range, and subsequently delay the auction.

The final area is another very difficult issue to manage. The report which is being produced for the 3.1-3.55 GHz range has only completed one of six sections. This report is supposed to shed light on what the spectrum is being used for, by whom and ways which it can be rationalised to add more available spectrum for mobile operators. But Pearson highlighted that progress has been sluggish.

The issue seems to be that it is difficult to understand what the spectrum is currently being used for, the incumbents are not being the most helpful as there are confidentiality hurdles to negotiate. No-one officially knows what this spectrum is actually being used for which usually means it is something to do with the military or intelligence services.

Without co-operation from the incumbents, it becomes very difficult to audit these airwaves and create a logical strategy to move forward.

To understand the importance of mid-band spectrum, it is worth looking at the experience being delivered without access.

According to OpenSignal’s most recent analysis of the US market, Verizon is delivering speeds few other international telcos can compete with over mmWave, but this digital dream is only accessible to 0.5% of its 5G subscribers. Elsewhere, for example in the UK where mid-band spectrum is being utilised, there is a speed upgrade (albeit nowhere near as much) but 12X more users are able to access the 5G airwaves.

What is critical about 5G right now is not delivering gigabit speed over the air, there are no applications which require this today, but demonstrating 5G is an upgraded service. Speed and latency improvements are a must, but if the users cannot access them the money spent on 5G networks are a complete and utter waste of time.

The US does of course recognise this situation, Pearson highlighted there is momentum gathering in support of the telcos in Washington, however it is far from an ideal situation. This is a pain point, though there is plenty of risk on the horizon to acting as a blocker for the solution.

Verizon starts toying around with mid-band spectrum

With 5G falling flat in the US, it appears Verizon is taking matters into its own hands with an application to the FCC to experiment with mid-band spectrum, specifically, 3.7-3.8 GHz.

In fairness to the US telcos, there hasn’t been much opportunity to deliver 5G over the airwaves which are proving critical to the rest of the world. The ‘C-band’ spectrum is congested, though the FCC is currently in the process of clearing it and creating a dynamic spectrum sharing initiative which could be the envy of the world. Better late than never.

According to the application made to the FCC, Verizon is planning on running trials over the 3.7-3.8 GHz spectrum in several locations in three states, namely:

  • Basking Ridge, New Jersey
  • Westlake, Texas
  • Williamston, Michigan
  • Okemos, Michigan
  • Jenison, Michigan
  • Hudsonville, Michigan
  • Ada, Michigan
  • Lowell, Michigan
  • Sunnyvale, California

Many telcos around the world have been bragging of the benefits of mid-band spectrum, benefiting from a more palatable compromise between increased download speeds and coverage, the US telcos have been struggling with mmWave or low-band airwaves, neither of which can deliver on the much-hyped 5G promise.

The status quo of disappointment was fine as long as all the telcos are underwhelming, but there has been a recent development which should worry the likes of Verizon and AT&T.

As part of the merger agreement between T-Mobile US and Sprint, the new company will have access to all three tiers of spectrum. T-Mobile had been offering 5G over 600 MHz and mmWave already, which was not satisfactory, however it now has access to Sprint’s 2.5 GHz assets. A blend of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum licences should see a very effective delivery of 5G. This is already being delivered in Philadelphia, though it won’t be long until it is scaled by the ambitious challenger.

Looking at the 5G subscriber forecasts by analyst firm Omdia, this could have a very material impact on the balance of power in the US telco industry.

Forecast of 5G subscriptions in US (2020-2022)
Telco 2020 2021 2022
AT&T 5,581,572 14,416,872 29,301,757
Verizon 2,520,867 16,560,150 35,020,621
T-Mobile and Sprint 5,560,802 18,560,447 36,266,014

Source: Omdia World Information Series

Alone, T-Mobile would erode the subscription lead AT&T and Verizon hold over it today, but it would still be in third place. When you combine the T-Mobile and Sprint figures, you have a market leading firm.

Some might suggest the figures are incorrect as the merger would mean Sprint disappears, but this will not happen overnight. Legacy deals might well be kept in play for the short-term under the Sprint brand as integration projects and campaigns run, but they will be delivered over the same network. The very network which will have the most comprehensive and attractive blend of spectrum.

“Mid-band spectrum provides the sweet spot combination of capacity and coverage for modern 5G networks that the rest of the world is coalescing behind,” Chris Pearson, President of 5G Americas, recently wrote on a blog post championing 5G as a catalyst for recovery from the current global pandemic.

“The international standards forum 3GPP identified the spectrum range 3.3-4.2 GHz as the core 5G band for countries around the world. But the US has yet to auction any exclusive use licensed spectrum in that global mid-band range for 5G.”

Pearson has pointed to regulatory restrictions slowing progress in accessing mid-band spectrum, a critical component in ensuring 5G meets the promises being made by the telecoms industry. A lack of mid-band spectrum is problematic for numerous reasons.

Firstly, coverage can only be delivered only low-band airwaves, but this does not deliver speed upgrades as T-Mobile customers are finding out. Over mmWave means coverage is very limited, which AT&T and Verizon customers are discovering, while it means network deployment is also a lot more expensive as densification projects are very costly and time consuming. Latency is also falling short of all standards by all telcos.

Pearson is of course a champion for the telecoms industry, but the necessity of mid-band spectrum is also replicated at regulatory level.

“For America to be a global leader and win the race to 5G technologies, which we must do for both economic and national security reasons, we must actively identify and make available a key ingredient necessary for 5G networks and systems: mid-band spectrum,” FCC Commissioner Mike O’Reilly said in a letter to President Donald Trump in April.

“Yet, the pipeline is nearly empty, and our wireless providers lack sufficient mid-band spectrum to meet the exponential growth enabled by 5G networks and expected by users. I believe that only you personally, with your unique ability to cut through the bureaucratic stonewalling, can free the necessary spectrum bands to provide our wireless providers the means to succeed.”

If the US is to deliver the 5G promise it needs access to mid-band spectrum. Not only will this benefit consumers, but it will allow enterprise customers to deliver on the newly emerging 5G-powered business models. Without it, US corporations might fall behind international rivals who exist in countries where the mid-band airwaves are available. This is a mid- to long-term consequence, but one which would be much more damaging to the US economy on the whole.

As it stands, only T-Mobile is in an adequate position. This should be a concern for AT&T and Verizon.

T-Mobile is a company which has been very successful in recent years, growing from a position of irrelevance to a genuine threat. The comfortable spectrum position could act as another catalyst for growth, potentially creating a new leader in the US telecoms industry. Daily Poll:

How critical is mid-band spectrum in delivering 5G services?

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FCC starts process to ban Chinese telcos in US

The FCC has issued what is known as a ‘Show Cause Order’ to four Chinese telcos operating in the US, demanding evidence to prove they are not at the behest of the Chinese Government.

In what might prove to be an impossible task, China Telecom Americas, China Unicom Americas, Pacific Networks, and ComNet all have to prove two things to retain domestic and international section 214 authorizations, which allow them to operate in the US. Firstly, the four will have to demonstrate the licences are within the public interest, and secondly, that the executive team and/or corporate strategy is not under the influence of the Chinese Government.

What is worth noting is that there is a nuance in the language of the Order:

The Orders direct the companies to explain why the Commission should not start the process of revoking their domestic and international section authorizations enabling them to operate in the United States.

The starting point for the FCC is in the negative; the licences will be removed unless the four telcos can offer reason not to. This is different to most judgments, where one would hope the judge would enter in a neutral position. Once again, this action is built on the justification of pursuing or increasing US national security.

“Foreign entities providing telecommunications services – or seeking to provide services – in the United States must not pose a risk to our national security,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

“The Show Cause Orders reflect our deep concern – one shared by the US Departments of Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State and the US Trade Representative – about these companies’ vulnerability to the exploitation, influence, and control of the Chinese Communist Party, given that they are subsidiaries of Chinese state-owned entities. We simply cannot take a risk and hope for the best when it comes to the security of our networks.”

And it appears the opportunity to fight the Chinese is a bipartisan cause.

“Since communist China is willing to disappear its own people to advance the regime’s geopolitical agenda, it is appropriate for the FCC to closely scrutinize telecom carriers with ties to that regime,” said FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. “This is a prudent step to ensure the security of America’s telecom networks. In the Show Cause orders issued today, we give carriers 30 days to explain why the FCC should not initiate proceedings to revoke their authority.”

Within 30 days the four telcos will have to prove the value of operating in the US, to provide telecoms services to US corporations and foreign parties, as well as proving there is no material influence on strategy and operations from Beijing. We suspect this will be a very difficult mission to fulfil. With each of the four companies being owned by Government entities (to varying degrees), their presence in the US will have already irked lawmakers.

As with other iterations of this argument, Government ownership is going to be a major factor, as is the presence of a law which coerces Chinese companies to assist the Government with intelligence gathering activities.

The national intelligence law has been circulating for over a year, though there are many half-truths bouncing around, depending on your allegiance. In truth, the vagueness and nuanced language make it very difficult to understand the weight of the law, how regularly these rules are enforced and what it actually means for foreign interests.

While we do not pretend to be legal moguls, the law effectively states Chinese-national companies can be compelled to assist the Government in intelligence-gathering activities. This is a law which has been in place for domestic operations for decades, though it was expanded during 2019 to broaden the reach, possibly to include international operations.

Huawei has been under the spotlight thanks to this law, and it was one of the factors used to effectively ban US telcos from working with the equipment vendor. However, Huawei has also pointed to clauses in the laws which state Chinese companies cannot be compelled to assist where it would break the law, undermine trust or compromise commercial relationships in international markets.

Again, due to the vagueness of the way the rules are written, is not entirely clear which angle is actually correct, or what even counts as co-operation. Political bias has been leading this rhetoric for years and separating fact from propaganda is becoming increasingly difficult, though it has been positioned that the US is not safe from Chinese espionage while these companies are permitted to operate within its borders.

What is worth noting is that most lawyers have agreed it would be difficult for Chinese companies to resist orders from the Government for data which is stored on Chinese servers, or for companies which are state-owned. However, there is little evidence to validate any claims, irrelevant to the side of the argument.

Although the law, which is likely to be the focal point of many arguments, is incredibly difficult to fully comprehend, it is quite clear that the Chinese telcos are in a bit of bother. Popular opinion is forming against the Chinese, with the COVID-19 outbreak certainly not helping matters in the US, and the starting opinion of the authorities will make it very difficult to maintain the licences.

FCC unanimously votes to make 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use

The US telecoms regulator didn’t split along partisan lines for once and is giving the country a lot more bandwidth to use for wifi and that sort of thing.

The FCC commissioners have had three weeks to argue the toss over the relative merits of freeing up the whole 6 GHz band (5.925–7.125 GHz) for unlicensed use, rather than licensing some of it to mobile operators. We expected them to vote in favour of it, but only by a 3-2 majority as the commissioners affiliated to the Democrat Party performed their standard Pavlovian objection. We were pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong this time, however, with all five giving it the green light.

“By doing this, we are effectively increasing the amount of mid-band spectrum available for wifi by almost a factor of five,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “This will be a huge benefit to consumers and innovators across the nation. Wi-Fi NOW’s Claus Hetting, a champion of wifi innovation, said it perfectly: ‘The truth is that this 6 GHz spectrum boost will launch the wifi industry into a new growth trajectory. It will boost wifi’s massive indoor dominance and surely, with the help of emboldened entrepreneurs everywhere, it will bring low-cost wifi (and unlicensed) connectivity to places where it has never been.’”

“While some argue that the unlicensed community doesn’t need the full 1200 megahertz of spectrum, I strongly disagree,” said Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. “Instead of doling out unlicensed spectrum in slivers or piecemeal through some dividend mechanism, we have the chance to provide a huge, much needed infusion of wireless currency to American innovators and entrepreneurs, who will undoubtedly amaze us with their ingenuity. Moreover, to obtain unlicensed 5G-like capabilities, 160 megahertz channels, or eventually 320 megahertz under Wi-Fi 7, are absolutely necessary. “

“I suspect this order will not be remembered because it enabled faster Netflix downloads,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr. “We don’t know what the future holds, but maybe the present pandemic gives us some clues about what’s around the corner. Millions of kids, including mine, are out of school today and stuck at home. Teachers and parents are working hard to keep them learning. Some are turning to video calls to enhance in-home learning, but even that does not capture the feedback between student and teacher that exists in the classroom.”

“With this decision on unlicensed spectrum we do well by the law, we add more permissionless airwaves to the wireless economy, and we expand the democratizing force of having more wifi in more places,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “Amen. Those are good things to do in this crisis and for the days ahead.”

“The 6 GHz spectrum is expected to complement 5G wireless service and unleash a wave of innovation for the Internet of Things,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. “It will allow doctors to conduct complex examinations and procedures remotely, enable the training of students and workers using virtual and augmented reality, and spur the next generation of streaming content and gaming.”

All the Commissioners made reference to the importance of wifi in keeping everyone connected while they’re locked down, which probably contributed to this rare unanimity. It’s fair to say wifi is having a good pandemic and the  wifi industry is specially pleased about what this means for realizing the full potential of Wi-Fi 6. We already heard from Wi-Fi NOW via Pai, so here’s what Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, had to say.

“Extending wifi into the 6 GHz spectrum band can provide more wifi capacity than all the other bands put together,” said Rodrigues. “What’s more, using Wi-Fi 6 technology in the extended band (also known as Wi-Fi 6E) will deliver higher speeds, low latency and service levels that are equivalent to 5G networks and be able to support the widespread, low-cost, use of advanced business, industrial and consumer applications. In terms of the capability and capacity of networks, Wi-Fi 6E, will rewrite the rules of what is possible.

“Wi-Fi 6E technology is designed to deliver performance in highly congested places and the next phase of our trials will prove that performance in real world locations. These trials will demonstrate the application and the benefits of the technology in live environments and through this accelerate the adoption and creation of new business opportunities enabled by the opening of the 6GHz spectrum to be used for wifi services.”

Various other wifi stakeholders, including Google and Intel, also applauded the move, so any US operators that feel hardly done by would be well advised to keep their opinions to themselves. Conspiracy theorists, however, are unlikely to do so and it’s surely just a matter of time before the tinfoil hat brigade start foaming about how wifi over 6 GHz gives you coronavirus, or is used for mind control, or some such attention-seeking guff.

White House sets up committee to assess foreign participation in US telco

President Donald Trump issued an executive order to establish a new committee to provide recommendations to FCC  regarding foreign applications for telecom licences in the US.

The formally titled “Executive Order on Establishing the Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector” was issued by the president on Saturday, with a primary objective to ‘assist the FCC in its public interest review of national security and law enforcement concerns that may be raised by foreign participation in the United States telecommunications services sector’.

The committee will be chaired by the Attorney General (William Barr as the current job holder) and members will include the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and heads of other executive departments or agencies, and Assistants to the President which the President sees appropriate. Advisors to the committee will include a dozen secretaries and heads of relevant departments and agencies, for example the State Department, Treasury, Commerce, National Intelligence, Office of Science and Technology Policy, as well as the President’s assistants for National Security Affairs and Economic Policy.

The committee’s working relation with the FCC will go two-ways. The FCC can refer applications for licences or transfers of licences to the committee for review. The committee will ‘review applications and licenses for risks to national security and law enforcement interests posed by such applications or licenses’, and will be authorised to collect information on applicants needed for the reviews. Based on such risk reviews, the committee shall recommend to the FCC whether it should dismiss or deny applications, set condition on or modify the granting of licences, or even revoke licenses already granted.

“I applaud the President for formalizing Team Telecom review and establishing a process that will allow the Executive Branch to provide its expert input to the FCC in a timely manner,” said FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. “Now that this Executive Order has been issued, the FCC will move forward to conclude our own pending rulemaking on reform of the foreign ownership review process.”

Citing the FCC’s decision to reject an application from China Mobile to offer international telephony service last year, Pai said “this FCC will not hesitate to act to protect our networks from foreign threats. At the same time, we welcome beneficial investment in our networks and believe that this Executive Order will allow us to process such applications more quickly.”

Some of America’s biggest telecom companies are of foreign ownership. The newly formed New T-Mobile, the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, is a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, with the German parent company being the biggest share-holder (43% of total share), and its second largest shareholder is Japan-based Softbank (23%). Vodafone used to own 45% of Verizon Wireless until 2014. But these naturally fall under the “beneficial investment” category. It will be applications like the one filed by China Mobile that will get most of the committee’s attention.

US makes $300 million available for telehealth initiatives

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced a $200 million programme to bring telehealth initiatives to US citizens, and an additional $100 million fund to help telcos build the networks.

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed through Congress last week, $200 million will be made available for healthcare providers to purchase the necessary broadband contracts and devices to deliver telehealth services, while the separate Connected Care Pilot Program will provide up to $100 million from the Universal Service Fund (USF) to add more to the pot.

“Almost two years ago, former FCC Chairman Newt Minow and I advocated for telemedicine as ‘a critical tool for making Americans healthier’ and called for forward-thinking policies that could ‘bring our health care system more fully into the digital age’,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

“Now, in the midst of the national emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic, our call has taken on serious urgency.  Connected care can help us treat coronavirus patients, enable patients with other conditions to get care while maintaining social distancing, and protect health care professionals from greater exposure.”

The concept of digital health solutions are of course in their infancy, but now would seem like an excellent time to accelerate the development and adoption of such services. The US might have been one of the latter nations to be impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, but it appears the consequences are becoming much more serious.

Employment has steadily decreased over the last decade, since the largest impacts of the 2008 global recession, though coronavirus has snuck its teeth deep into the US economy and society in recent weeks.

US Unemployment as percentage of workforce (2011-2020) at February-end
Year 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Unemployment 9% 8.3% 7.7% 6.7% 5.5%
Year 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Unemployment 4.9% 4.6% 4.1% 3.8% 3.5%

Data curtesy of US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

While the Dow Jones has been showing signs of stability, down 27% since the end of February but the sharp decline has halted, the unemployment numbers are a blow. According to the new statistics, 9.95 million individuals have filed for unemployment in the US over the last two weeks. This fortnight period is higher than the previous ten months aggregated.

The figures for March will be made official by the BLS Statistics in the coming days, but with COVID-19 closing many businesses and high streets across the US, unemployment figures could return to the early part of the decade. The BLS estimates the total US workforce was over 164 million in February; 9.95 million individuals, the number who have filed for unemployment over the last two weeks, would represent 16.4% of this workforce now being unemployed.

And it will be the poorest communities which will be hit the hardest.

“I am also glad that the pilot program focuses on meeting the needs of low-income people and veterans,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. “As the coronavirus pandemic continues, more and more Americans face unprecedented economic challenges.

“Just last week, a record 3.3 million American applied for unemployment benefits. More hardships are ahead. I am hopeful that this pilot program will both provide targeted assistance to communities in need as soon as possible and pave the way for a broader commitment to improving health care and connectivity for low-income people.”

The demands on the telecommunications industry over the last few weeks have been to ensure home and remote workers are able to perform their duties, but as the pandemic impacts more elements of society, the scope will have to be widened. Healthcare is an obvious area where connectivity can bolster daily life.

While the healthcare industry has been propositioned as one which would greatly benefit from improved connectivity, little progress has been made. This is a very traditional and risk-adverse industry which is resistant to change. There is little evidence of evolution of healthcare systems around the world through the last few decades, but digital transformation is seemingly being thrust on the industry.

The idea of a connected healthcare system, where doctors and other health professionals can perform duties remotely, seems like a very obvious solution. It keeps people in their homes, preventing further spread and protecting essential workers, but could also make appointments more efficient. There will be growing pains of course, but this is a very sensible and logical solution.

This is not an initiative which will bed-in overnight, the purchasing of contracts, equipment and devices will take time, but it is certainly one which the rest of the world should be watching and wondering why they haven’t implemented such a scheme.

US moves to massively increase bandwidth available to wifi

Ajit Pai, the Chairman of US comms regulator FCC, has proposed making 1.2 GHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use.

“From wifi routers to home appliances, Americans’ everyday use of devices that connect to the Internet over unlicensed spectrum has exploded,” said Pai. “That trend will only continue. Cisco projects that nearly 60% of global mobile data traffic will be off-loaded to wifi by 2022. To accommodate that increase in wifi demand, the FCC is aiming to increase the supply of wifi spectrum with our boldest initiative yet: making the entire 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use.

“By doing this, we would effectively increase the amount of spectrum available for wifi almost by a factor of five. This would be a huge benefit to consumers and innovators across the nation. It would be another step toward increasing the capacity of our country’s networks. And it would help advance even further our leadership in next generation wireless technologies, including 5G.”

Right now wifi uses a few hundred MHz in the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. This proposal would enable a ton of extra spectrum contiguous to the 5 GHz band, which would be especially handy for technologies that make use of fatter pipes. The proposal authorizes two different types of unlicensed operations: standard-power in 850-megahertz of the band and indoor low-power operations over the full 1,200-megahertz available.

“The proposed opening of the 6 GHz band to Wi-Fi 6 technology will be a game changer for global wifi, said Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of Wireless Broadband Alliance. “This new band would provide more capacity than all the other wifi bands put together. If approved, it would prove critical for overcrowding on many wifi networks, especially in light of the volumes of bandwidth hungry corporate traffic recently pushed onto home networks due to COVID-19.

“This is one of the reasons we have been working closely with members on initial trials of Wi-Fi 6E. The proposed release of the 6 GHz band would mean that we can generate multi-gigabit speeds and low-latency connections to deliver advanced mobile services to consumers, business and industry. Wi-Fi 6E is already proven in trials to achieve speeds to rival those of advanced 5G mobile networks.”

This proposal will probably be opposed by some US operators as they fancied a bit more 5G licensed spectrum in that band, but they’ve got plenty already so it doesn’t look like Pai is very sympathetic to their plight. You can read more about his thinking in an article he published here. The proposal will be voted on at the FCC’s open meeting on April 23, which will presumably split along partisan lines as usual, meaning the majority Republicans will wave it through.

US 3.5 GHz spectrum auction delayed by a month

The US Federal Communications Commission is delaying an imminent spectrum auction by a month coz of coronavirus.

Auction 105 is for the part of 3550-3650 MHz band currently being used for CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) that the FCC has decided to license. It’s not the biggest 5G auction ever, but operators are keen to get hold of as much mid-band spectrum as possible in order to be able to deliver on their lofty 5G bandwidth promises. It was due to take place in 25 June, but has now been delayed until 23 July.

“Many Americans have had to make tough decisions on how they do business in this rapidly changing environment, and the FCC is no different,” said Chairman Ajit Pai. “After consulting agency staff within the relevant bureaus and offices, we determined that it was in everyone’s best interest to make these changes. But we remain committed to holding the 3.5 GHz auction this summer and look forward to beginning this important mid-band auction in July.”

Given the scale and severity of the pandemic, merely delaying by a month seems somewhat optimistic. The decision may well have been influenced by President Trump’s current rhetoric on the length of time the country will need to be locked down (see below). They presumably feared a longer delay would have indicated a less bullish stance, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see that date pushed back again before the summer.

US heads towards C-Band but critics create risk of legal action

The FCC has proposed new actions which would finally make valuable mid-band spectrum available to telcos, but it is not without opponents.

For five years the FCC has been attempting to figure out how it can free-up the C-Band spectrum airwaves, and now it seems to have finally made some progress. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the country’s largest ever spectrum auction, with 22,000 country-wide licences available in the 3.55-3.65 GHz, though the US will have to swallow a $14.7 billion bill for satellite companies to vacate the space. This is the issue for some.

“Shelling out billions for airwaves we already own is no way to handle taxpayer money – especially when taxpayers want those dollars to support rural broadband,” said Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana.

“People say appetites grow by indulgence, and it’s true: These foreign satellite firms want all four feet and their snout in the taxpayer trough. The FCC shouldn’t be helping them.”

Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat, Telesat and Embratel Star One have all demonstrated to the FCC they have commercial activities in the C-Band airwaves which would be negatively impacted by the proposals. Licences will expire towards the end of the decade, though the FCC has said it would make funds available to accelerate the process of vacating these valuable airwaves.

Senator Kennedy seemingly believes the satellite operators can be kicked off the airwaves at the drop of a hat as they are leaseholders of the assets not owners. The statement generally ignores well established commercial practices, though this is a man in an influential position.

The US Senate Committee on Appropriations regulates expenditures of money by the government. The FCC is under the jurisdiction of the Financial Services and General Government subcommittee, of which Senator Kennedy is the Chairperson. If Senator Kennedy wants to throw a spanner into the auction mechanism, he certainly has the power to do so.

And despite the financial reward for relocated out of the C-Band airwaves, not all the satellite companies are happy with the situation.

“This Order is fatally flawed by its misinterpretations of the Communications Act, and by its numerous arbitrary and capricious conclusions,” said ABS CEO Jim Frownfelter. “The Small Satellite Operators (SSOs) are going to be harmed by the unlawful revocation of the right to use 60% of their licensed C-band spectrum, and we will ask the courts to overturn this Order and to instruct the FCC to start the entire process again.”

ABS is a global satellite operator, offering broadcasting, data and telecommunication services, through a fleet of satellites operating in the C-Band airwaves. The Small Satellite Operators (SSO) is a lobby group representing ABC alongside Hispasat and Embratel Star One, plan on launching legal action to halt the auction process.

What is developing is a very complicated situation. The C-Band airwaves are key to the efficient deployment of 5G services, though thanks to congestion, they are not immediately available to US telcos.

Almost everywhere else around the world, mid-band spectrum is forming the foundation of the drive towards 5G. The spectrum marries a palatable balance between high-speed data downloads and extended coverage, hence the popularity in the absence of network densification projects. With a reliance on high-band spectrum in the US, delivering the promised experience of 5G might be very difficult and expensive.

The proposals put forward by the FCC, a dynamic spectrum sharing policy, is a very interesting one. A three-tier hierarchy will be created to offer the US Navy primary use over the airwaves, though the vast majority of the time, second and third tier licence owners will make use. This is an interesting approach and could offer regulators around the world confidence to take a new approach to spectrum management, though the threat of legal complications in the Senate and courts paint a gloomy picture.