US attempt to grab mid-band spectrum for 5G gets messy

The US telecoms regulator wants satellite companies to hand over 300 MHz of C-band spectrum, but the question of how compensation remains unresolved.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently made a rambling speech about how vital it is to US strategic interests that it lead the world in 5G. Apparently critical to this is a chunk of mid-band spectrum currently owned by a few satellite companies, so he wants to compel them to make it available to operators.

In return he’s going to get the operators to give the satellite companies up to $5 billion to cover the cost of vacating 300 MHz from 3.7-4 GHz and a further $9.7 billion to compensate them for the lost asset so long as they hand it over sharpish.

This is where things get complicated. On one hand it’s distinctly possible that the satellite companies will decide that’s not a fair valuation of their precious spectrum and thus hold out for more, with even the threat of bankruptcy apparently on the table. On the other hand there are people who thing that price is too high and in anyone’s going to extort US operators it should be the US state. And presumably the operators themselves would rather not get rinsed yet again.

“The imminent issuance of the draft order reflects the tireless efforts of many over the past several years to ensure that this critical spectrum comes to market safely, quickly, and efficiently,” said a statement issued by The C-Band Alliance, which represents the interests of Intelsat, SES and Telesat in this matter. “Today’s comments by Chairman Pai are a significant development in this important proceeding. We look forward to reviewing the draft order, once issued, to place Chairman Pai’s comments in full context.”

The danger for the C-Band Alliance is that the current US administration increasingly views 5G as a matter of national security and of strategic geopolitical significance. If Kennedy’s bleat is anything to go by, the US state is warming to the idea of unilaterally appropriating private property in the name of kicking 5G ass. 5G is important, but so are property rights and legal due process. Something’s got to give.

US telcos in line for fine over non-consensual location data sales

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has written to member of Congress following the conclusion of a geo-location investigation. The result; the telcos have been breaking the law.

What the punishment will be remains to be seen, but this draws to an end an investigation which the FCC seemingly did not really want to get involved with. It also remains to be seen which telcos will be drawn into the melee; Verizon stopped selling data to suspect companies when asked, the others did not.

“Fulfilling the commitment I made in that letter, I wish to inform you that the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau has completed its extensive investigation and that it has concluded that one or more wireless carriers apparently violated federal law,” Pai said in the letters to various different politicians.

In 2018, a Silicon Valley security researcher suggested telcos were able to monitor the data coming off many cell towers to effectively track customers without consent. This data was then in turn sold to any party willing to pay, with the telcos seemingly making zero ethical judgments on whether this should be done.

The data would usually be sold to companies such as Securus or Microbilt, before being farmed out further afield with little official oversight. This data might end up in the hands of a bounty hunter, searching for a fugitive who skipped bail, or with more nefarious characters.

“Thanks to an outcry from consumers, last year the big wireless companies finally stopped allowing shady data brokers to track their customers,” tweeted Senator Ron Wyden, one of the politicians who raised concerns in 2018.

“I’m eager to see whether the FCC will truly hold wireless companies accountable or let them off with a slap on the wrist.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements to this story was the reluctance of the FCC to move forward with any investigations.

Initial reports outlining the practice of selling geo-location without consent were initially unveiled in early 2018, though another report in January 2019 suggested T-Mobile US, AT&T and Sprint were continuing with the practice despite making public commitments to stop. In December 2019, almost 18 months after the initial reports, the FCC agreed to an investigation.

“For more than a year, the FCC was silent after news reports alerted us that for just a few hundred dollars, shady middlemen could sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data,” said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “It’s chilling to consider what a black market could do with this data. It puts the safety and privacy of every American with a wireless phone at risk.

“Today this agency finally announced that this was a violation of the law. Millions and millions of Americans use a wireless device every day and didn’t sign up for or consent to this surveillance. It’s a shame that it took so long for the FCC to reach a conclusion that was so obvious.”

What is worth noting is that selling data to aggregators who work with third parties is not always so shady. This is a tried and tested strategy in the financial services industry to identify and prevent fraud, ultimately protecting the consumer. But these efforts are transparent and given oversight.

Given that there was apparent reluctance by the FCC to get involved in the saga in the first place, it will be interesting to see how much of a punishment is dolled out. Chairman Pai has traditionally been a friend of the telcos, but to keep the public on side, he might have to make a political call to punish appropriately.

Mavenir looks to cash in on US xenophobia

At times, US anti-China rhetoric flirts with the line between protectionist and xenophobic, but that won’t bother the likes of Mavenir as it touts its All-American credentials.

It what appears to be a relatively unprompted submission, Mavenir lawyers have filed documents with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stating the firm is as patriotically-US as apple pie, watery lager, high-powered rifles and gas-guzzling jeeps.

The objective here is quite clear; the US political administration does not like China, is prepared to spend big to supercharge an alternative telco vendor to the likes of Huawei or ZTE, and Mavenir wants to get rich as the establishment attempts to drown the success of China’s technology industry under the patronising veil of national security.

It is opportunism at its finest.

“Mavenir noted that it is the industry’s only US-owned, US-headquartered, end-to-end network software provider delivering OpenRAN and virtualized networks,” the filing states.

There are of course other companies who could be deemed American, though it appears they have their own faults. Parallel Wireless, for example, is headquartered in New England, is funded by Californian moneymen, but some of its founders are Indian. It almost ticked all the boxes!

Although it is an unusual strategy from Mavenir, it might work.

US politicians might be losing the political battle to extend its anti-China rhetoric throughout the world but presenting a genuine alternative might be one way to aid this propaganda campaign. An alternative which is also driving forward the attractive OpenRAN technology to add a cherry on top.

While it might still be a technology in its infancy, OpenRAN is capturing the hearts and minds of those who want to force through disruption in the RAN ecosystem. The Nokia/Ericsson/Huawei cartel does not present a significant amount of competition, which OpenRAN could help with, while it could also make the economics of 5G network deployment more attractive.

There are a few initiatives which are progressing around the world. Rakuten is deploying a fully virtualised network with the OpenRAN community at the heart. Admittedly it doesn’t have to worry about legacy technologies muddying the waters, but Vodafone, MTN, Telefonica and Etisalat are attempting to blend OpenRAN into a more traditional network work environment, with legacy complications and all.

Earlier this month, the Democrat Senator for Virginia Mark Warner introduced a new bill to Congress. The Utilizing Strategic Allied (USA) Telecommunications Act will aim to provide $1 billion to create Western-based alternatives to Chinese equipment providers Huawei and ZTE. This is the prize the Mavenir gold-diggers are chasing.

And to sweeten the deal, Mavenir has also suggested it is able to help the poor rural providers dig out the dangerous technology from naughty Huawei and ZTE. We suspect it will all be done for a patriotically attractive price, or at least attractive to the Mavenir swashbucklers.

This is what some might call underhanded PR, a tactic which is more at home on ‘The Thick of It’ than the telecommunications slugfest. But it is an excellent of opportunism, which will probably be successful for the All-American vendor.

FCC finally opens up 3.5 GHz for US telcos

It might be years overdue, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made the first tentative steps towards utilising valuable assets in the 3.5 GHz spectrum band.

Described as the C-Band, or at times the ‘Innovation Band’, the 3.5 GHz spectrum assets have been widely recognised around the world as the key to unlocking 5G in the short-term. Thanks to a more palatable compromise between coverage and speed, these spectrum assets have been the most desirable for telcos in Europe and Asia.

In appointing CommScope, Federated Wireless, Google and Sony as its four Spectrum Access System (SAS) Administrators, US telcos might have the opportunity to access the spectrum in the near future.

“The FCC has made it a priority to free up mid-band spectrum for advanced wireless services like 5G,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “And today, I’m pleased to announce the latest step to achieve that priority: the approval of four systems that will enable the 3.5 GHz band to be put to use for the benefit of American consumers and businesses.

“As with all of our efforts to execute on the 5G FAST plan, we’re pushing to get next-generation wireless services deployed in the 3.5 GHz band as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

While many of the US telcos have been preaching the benefits of mmWave spectrum to deliver 5G services, many have been critical of the approach. It might deliver eye-wateringly fast download speeds, though the coverage from cell sites is currently pathetic, as are the propagation characteristics. There is a very good reason the vast majority of regulators have prioritised the 3.5 GHz spectrum band; it offers increased download speed but does not frustrate on coverage anywhere near as much.

The issue for the FCC and US telcos in the 3.5 GHz spectrum band has been one of congestion. The US Navy has been utilising the spectrum in recent years and is reluctant to permanently vacate due to the compatibility of its equipment on ships and bases. Overhauling the US Navy radar system is hardly a simple task, though as it does not make use of the spectrum in all places and at all times, a new solution was needed.

What will emerge over the near future is an innovative dynamic spectrum sharing mechanism, with the four SASs key to the success. The 3.55-3.7 GHz band will now be split into 15 channels, with access for third parties and telcos being managed by the SASs, though the Navy will have priority use as and when demanded. However, the Navy’s use of the spectrum will largely be limited to the coastal areas.

While the US is very late to the 3.5 GHz spectrum party, it is bringing a very interesting idea with it. Such a dynamic spectrum sharing initiative is an excellent idea to make use of scarce and valuable assets. There will be numerous regulators watching this project very closely.

Huawei and ZTE have a month to convince the US they’re not a security threat

The US Federal Communications Commission has set a deadline of 3 February for comments on its designation of Huawei and ZTE as security threats.

This is a standard regulatory procedure to demonstrate the gathering of as many viewpoints and pieces of information as possible before making a decision. But as is so often the case this will probably prove to be a mere formality in the rubber-stamping process of a decision that was made some time ago.

Specifically there were two almost identical announcements made by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, in which the only variations were the names of the companies. ‘The PSHSB announces that comments in response to the initial designation of [company], its parents, affiliates, and subsidiaries as a covered company in the Protecting Against National Security Threats to the Communications Supply Chain Through FCC Programs Report and Order are due on February 3, 2020,’ opened the announcement.

It goes on to clarify that this process refers to the prohibition on spending USF money by any US operator with Huawei or ZTE. Huawei is taking the FCC to court over this prohibition so it seems to be belatedly manufacturing the impression of due process in anticipation of the matter going to court.

It’s hard to see what arguments Huawei, ZTE or any of their allies could possibly present this month that would persuade the FCC of the error of its ways. Little, if any, concrete evidence has been presented of the threat they pose to US security other than the fact that they’re Chinese and thus presumed to be obliged to assist the Chinese state in espionage when required. Huawei’s legal action will rely heavily on demonstrating the FCC is not granting it legal due process and this call for comment does little to undermine that claim.

SpaceX fights back over Amazon’s satellite shortcut

Amazon is one of the many companies interested in deploying low-orbit satellites for the internet, but SpaceX is lobbying the FCC to prevent the internet giant dodging bureaucratic complications.

When launching a constellation of satellites for the delivery of mobile broadband, there are many boxes to tick. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos certainly has the cash, the interest, the ambition and the manpower to make his satellite venture a success, but one thing he doesn’t currently have is the regulatory approval to access spectrum. This is obviously a massive stumbling block.

Over the last few months, Amazon has been submitting various different filings with the ITU and the FCC to overcome the regulatory hurdles, but there is one monstrous complication; the spectrum has already been allocated.

This is where it starts to get very interesting. Amazon is asking for a waiver so it can pursue the delivery of mobile broadband via low-orbit satellite, but its competitors are lobbying against the waiver.

SpaceX has submitted its own opinion to the FCC where it believes the requests should be denied. Nine companies participated in the initial Ka-band licensing round, a very complex bureaucratic procedure to allocate spectrum to the likes of Telesat Canada, Theia Holdings, and Iridium Communications.

Amazon can participate in the secondary round of Ka-band licensing, though it risks being designated as secondary-operator. In this situation, it would have to cease operations should the assets interfere with the operations of one of the previously established operators. This is not a position the ambitious Bezos will want to be in.

The question which remains is whether the FCC will permit Bezos to take the shortcut, muscling in on spectrum licences which were allocated years ago, or will force the firm to take the official route. The likes of SpaceX will certainly want to make life difficult for Amazon, why would it want another competitor in the skies after all.

Should the FCC side with SpaceX’s lobbyists there is a risk Bezos might scale back his investment in the stars. But then again, does the FCC want to sour relationships with everyone else as an alternative?

New York Governor proposes localised net neutrality rules

New York state will join the likes of Washington and California in creating localised net neutrality rules.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the new rules to follow-up an executive order from 2018 which prevented Government agencies from entering into contracts with telco and technology companies unless they followed net neutrality principles. While the complications of contradictory state- and federal-level rules have not been fully appreciated, New York joins the crowd in ignoring the FCC.

“A free and open internet is one of the great equalizers — allowing every person the same access to information and helping protect freedom of speech,” said Cuomo.

“While the federal administration works to undermine this asset, in New York we are advancing the strongest net neutrality proposal in the nation so big corporations can’t control what information we access or stymie smaller competitors. These protections will help ensure an open market for ideas and content across platforms and preserve the unimpeded access to online content the public wants and needs.”

As part of the rules, telcos will be prevented from any blocking, throttling or paid prioritization of online content, while ‘zero-rating’ products will also be deemed illegal. Cuomo believes these rules exceed the levels of protection which were offered to the consumer under the net neutrality rules put in place by former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Although the net neutrality rules were officially undone by a Republican-controlled FCC on December 14, 2017, New York now becomes the fourth state to create its own rules. Washington State was the first, though California and Maine have followed suit. The next Presidential Election will dictate the next chapter of this story, though the current position is not healthy.

What is slowly emerging across the US is a fragmented regulatory landscape. This is not only because of the polar opposite approach in New York, California, Maine and Washington State compared to the FCC’s stance, but also the nuances between the different net neutrality regulations. None will be exactly the same creating a patchwork of legislative complications. Companies like consistency, and this is anything but consistent.

Net neutrality argument reappears with another court appeal

A coalition of consumer interest groups are attempting to reinvigorate the dying embers of the net neutrality debate with a petition filed with US courts.

Filed in US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the very same court which turned down the original appeal in October, the petition has asked the judges to reconsider their decision. The petition suggests the ruling from the October appeal conflicts with the decisions and precedent set by these judges and the Supreme Court in previous competition cases.

“The court unfortunately got it wrong when it upheld the FCC’s decision to arbitrarily side-line itself from protecting consumers’ internet access,” said Ed Black, President of the Computer & Communication Industry Association (CCIA).

“Open access is important for all internet users, and for businesses it supports more competition and innovation by putting the next start-up on equal ground with bigger businesses. With so many politicians calling for more competition and better enforcement, it would be a shame to miss an opportunity to uphold open internet rules which have supported competition.”

Alongside the CCIA, the petition has been filed by the Public Knowledge, Free Press, the Center for Democracy and Technology, New America’s Open Technology Institute and the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society.

Despite numerous challenges from consumer interest groups and Attorney Generals, the net neutrality debate did look to have come to a conclusion. After years of friction, the DC Court of Appeals confirmed in October that the FCC was perfectly within its rights to repeal the net neutrality rules, adding credibility to the assertion from the regulator that competition and fair access to the internet can be retained without the stringent oversight.

Interestingly enough, in the petition filed on Friday, the groups are suggesting the rules and definitions of consumer protection and competition are flawed, as opposed to criticizing the FCC’s ability to enforce them. This is a different strategy from the court proceeding which have been initiated in the past, though whether the consumer groups have enough weight behind them remains to be seen.

The previous cases against the FCC’s dismantling of net neutrality generated momentum thanks to significant support from Big Tech companies, but also from the general public. This support might have forced the hand of some politically-minded bureaucrats, but the courts backed the FCC. Renewed efforts without the previous support might struggle.

Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular lied on 4G coverage but will get away with it

Buried in the depths of a FCC press release, the authority has said Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular exaggerated on 4G coverage maps but no punishments are being considered.

As part of the Mobility Fund Phase II, telcos were given federal support for rolling out 4G services to rural and underserved areas. This cash was supposed to bridge the digital divide, and as part of the agreement, the telcos were obliged to provide accurate coverage maps to ensure the cash was being spent in the right manner.

Following an investigation into the initiative, it was found Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular misled the FCC on their 4G footprint. Data was presented to the Commission exaggerating the extent of 4G coverage, in other words, these three telcos were not spending federal money as promised. These telcos were effectively lying to the Commission and the general public.

Interestingly enough, the FCC does not currently have any plans to punish the trio, instead has created a new initiative to apply for federal funds. All three will be invited to apply for the Government hand-out. This is perhaps the latest example of a toothless watchdog, with the bureaucrats in charge in procession of the same spine as a lifeless slug.

The new fund will make $9 billion available to ensure 5G connectivity reaches the areas in the US which the telcos elect to ignore.

“We want to make sure that rural Americans enjoy these benefits, just as residents of large urban areas will,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “In order to do that, the Universal Service Fund must be forward-looking and support the networks of tomorrow.

“Moreover, America’s farms and ranches have unique wireless connectivity needs, as I’ve seen across the country. That’s why I will move forward as quickly as possible to establish a 5G Fund that would bring next-generation 5G services to rural areas and would reserve some of that funding for 5G networks that promote precision agriculture.”

The announcement of the 5G Fund for Rural America is the very press release the FCC decided to attempt to bury the findings of the report. Considering how much work has been done to disguise the Mobility Fund Phase II investigation, few should be surprised Verizon, T-Mobile and US Cellular will get away with ignoring rules and spending tax payer’s money in an irresponsible manner.

This is a saga which has been on-going for some time, after smaller, rural telcos complained the nationwide players were exaggerating coverage maps. These coverage maps helped the FCC determine who should get a slice of the $4.5 billion reserved for the Mobility Fund Phase II. What is being done to make sure the same abuses do not reoccur is unknown. It does appear nothing right now.

Telcos have shown on numerous occasions they cannot be trusted to act responsibly on their own, but when a watchdog ignores such flagrant disregard for the rules it simply encourages the telcos to push the definitions of right and wrong even further.

The FCC has failed the general public here, the very people it is supposed to serve.

Looking at the 5G Fund for Rural America, the objective is simple. Telcos prioritise deployment in areas which are commercially more attractive, the larger cities and major transport hubs. This is forgivable, these are commercial companies after all not charities, but the federal funds are designed to offset some of the extraordinary expense for network deployment. It is a reasonable way to spend federal dollars when managed correctly.

$9 billion will be set aside for the rural communities, which includes $1 billion which will have to be spent on delivering connectivity solutions for the agricultural industry. With an election on the horizon, this is a very intelligent move. In 2016, President Trump arguably won because he was able to mobilise communities and individuals who were feeling marginalised; in the digital world, farmers fit this description perfectly.

The question which remains is whether the same telcos can be trusted to appropriately spend their allocation of the $9 billion moving forward. Seeing as the FCC is currently proving itself as toothless, there doesn’t seem to be any deterrent to behave, which is an interesting position to be in.

Huawei takes the US FCC to court

The US telecoms regulator has moved to block federal funds being spent with Huawei and the Chinese kit vendor reckons that’s unlawful.

Huawei has filed a petition with the US Court of Appeals, requesting it to find the FCC move unlawful because it failed to follow basic due process. In free and open societies due process is a vital concept to protect private individuals and organisations from an oppressive state. It should ensure that everyone gets the same treatment under the law and prescribe the legal process that ideally should feature evidence of alleged crimes at some stage.

Huawei’s assertion is that the FCC has taken this action against it unilaterally and without any due process. Furthermore Huawei continues to insist that the US has yet to present any concrete evidence of the security threat it’s accused of posing. Since that security threat is the stated reason behind the FCC banning any federal funds being spent with Huawei, that’s another reason why it reckons the move is unlawful.

“The FCC claims that Huawei is a security threat, but the FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, has not provided any evidence,” said Huawei’s Chief Legal Officer, Dr. Song Liuping, at a press conference. “This is a common trend in Washington these days. ‘Huawei is a Chinese company’, that’s his only excuse. He has tried to spread fear about Huawei. He uses words like ‘backdoors’ to scare people. But they offer no proof.”

He went on to say how much Huawei wants to help the US with rural connectivity and how harmful to rural Americans actions like this are. He noted that Ericsson and Nokia manufacture kit in China too and even quoted Bill Gates’ criticism of a blanket suspicion of everything that comes from China. Finally he reasserted Huawei’s position that all this US aggro is to do with politics rather than security.

There does seem to have been a suspension of due process when it comes to Huawei having been found guilty as charged without evidence, trial, etc. It’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that Huawei has become a bargaining chip in the broader geopolitical tussle between the US and China. The US likes to think of itself as the land of the free, but due process is an essential prerequisite to freedom and shouldn’t be suspended for any reason.