Money is piling up in the US 24 GHz auction

Over 30 companies have put more than $560 million in bid money on the table at FCC’s auction for the 24 GHz frequency. And this is only the beginning.

Following the underwhelming auction of the 28 GHz (dubbed Auction 101) spectrum, which only returned $703 million, the new auction of the 24 GHz (dubbed Auction 102) is heating up quickly. The auction started last Thursday and has gone through 11 rounds of the first phase of the auction, or the “clock phase”, when participants bid on a Partial Economic Area (PEA) blocks. By the end of round 11, the gross proceeds have reached a total amount of $563,427,235. There are still two days, or six more rounds to go, before the winners can move to the next phase of the process.

The “assignment phase” will allow the winners from the first phase to bid for specific frequency licence assignments. The total bid value for the 24 GHz frequencies could go up to between $2.4 billion and $5.6 billion, according to the estimate by Brian Goemmer, founder of the spectrum-tracking company AllNet Insights & Analytics, when he spoke to our sister publication Light Reading.

The key difference the has driven up the interest from the bidders for Auction 102 is the locations where the frequencies are made available. While major metropolises like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, were absent from 28 GHz auction, they are all on the current 24 GHz auction together with other major cities that would be the candidates for the 5G services to roll out in the first wave.

Bidders have included AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and more than 30 other companies. The FCC will announce the winners including those from Auction 101 only after both phases of Auction 102 are completed.

In addition to bidding for mmWave frequencies, operators like AT&T are also actively refarming the lower frequency bands in their possession that are used to provide 3G services. AT&T sent a notice to its customers in February that it will stop 3G only SIM activation, urging customers to move to LTE. The company said “we currently plan to end service on our 3G wireless networks in February 2022.” Specifically the company is planning to refarm the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz frequency bands, saying “it may be necessary for us to turn down one band of our owned and operated 3G network, such as 1900 MHz or 850 MHz service”.

Considering the AT&T only switched its 2G networks off at the beginning of 2017, this is a clear sign that the generational transition of mobile telecom services is accelerating. Earlier in the middle of last year, Verizon confirmed that it will shut down its 3G CDMA networks by the end of 2019. Even earlier at the MWC in 2017, T-Mobile’s CTO Neville Ray said the company was looking to sunset both GSM and WCDMA.

Germany’s 5G auction has not got off to a flying start

Telefónica Deutschland has filed an urgent appeal against the country’s 5G auction terms. Deutsche Telekom may follow suit.

Telefónica Deutschland was seeking to halt the country’s 5G auction by filing an appeal for injunction at an administrative court in Cologne on Tuesday 5 February. Germany was scheduled to hold the 5G auction by the end of March and was expecting to raise up to €5 billion. The key items on the terms issued by the Federal Network Agency being contested are concerning the coverage requirements, especially the coverage in rural areas and along motorways, and the mandated network sharing with competitors (the so-called domestic roaming).

Telefónica Deutschland argued that the coverage obligations could not be fulfilled with the spectrum at auction, while the frequency in its possession is already being used by other expansion requirements.

“This legal uncertainty is extremely unhelpful for the necessary massive investments in future network expansion. Billions in 5G cannot be invested on the basis of unclear rules. It must be in the interest of all involved that clarity and planning security are created here before an auction,” said Markus Haas, CEO of Telefónica Deutschland.

Telefónica was also unhappy that politicians should demand network sharing between competitors. “We have already invested €20 billion in infrastructure in Germany. We have always said that we will continue to invest if the conditions are right,” Haas told the German publication Handelsblatt late last year. However, as a condition to approve its merger with E-Plus in 2014, EU regulators already required Telefónica to make 30 percent of its capacity available to MVNOs, in this case 1&1 Drillisch.

Meanwhile Telefónica insisted that even if there would be a delay in the auction, “this would not have any influence on a large-scale launch of 5G in Germany. This is because the spectrum available for auction for this purpose will not be allocated to the successful participants until the end of 2020 anyway,” the company said in a statement.

Deutsche Telekom may also consider its position differently now. It first told Handelsblatt “we have not yet made an urgent request, to avoid delaying the auction schedule.” But in light of the new appeal from Telefónica, “we are therefore examining all legal options,” the spokesperson added.

It is not the first time the telcos have resorted to legal measures. By the end of December, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefónica, as well as the challengers United Internet and Freenet had all filed lawsuits against the government’s rules over the upcoming auction, but none was successful in halting the process.

Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefónica, and United Internet (trading as “1&1 Drillisch”) filed applications before the deadline of 25 January to participate in the upcoming 5G auction.

EU passed new telecom rules to promote 5G

The telecom ministers gave final approval to the new European Electronic Communications Code to encourage competition, promote new technologies, as well as protect consumer interests.

It has been a busy couple of weeks in Brussels. The telecom configuration of the Council of the European Union, composed of the government ministers whose portfolios cover telecom, gave the final seal of approval to the European Electronic Communications Code. This came after the European Parliament (composed of elected MEPs) voted in favour of the Code in mid-November, and after a year after the European Council (composed of heads of governments) reached an agreement on the rules.

More than two years in the making, the Code covers mainly four areas: the ubiquitous and unconstrained connectivity; the harmonisation of the competences of national regulatory authorities (NRAs); the harmonisation of spectrum-related issues, and revised rules on services. While harmonisation is the key to regulator operations and the rules governing radio frequencies across all member states, a few specific points stood out:

  • When it comes to 5G, the Code advocates for “binding and enforceable rules for enhancing coordination of spectrum management in the EU with greater focus on adapting spectrum rules to the future 5G challenges”. The European Commission (the executive branch responsible for the day-to-day operation of the EU) and NRAs will “review elements of individual Member States’ planned national assignment procedures which have more impact on market and business developments. Moreover, this option will place greater emphasis on the investment environment for dense 5G networks.”
  • On services, all member states will set up a public warning system to further strengthen the protection of residents. A ‘reverse 112′ system will be put into place send alerts to people’s mobile phones in the event of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other major emergency in their area. It needs to be in operation within three-and-a-half years of the Code entering into force (see below).
  • On consumer rights protection, the Code will extend the same applicability of the rules to services provided over the internet, for example mobile apps. “Member States will also have to establish rules for compensation in case of misconduct by providers of electronic communications networks or services.”

The Council also approved the new remit of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), the EU-wide telecom regulator. The office is tasked to create “an investment-friendly and pro-competitive framework which will lay the groundwork for the development of 5G across Europe.” New rules on cross-country calls and messages were also passed: the retail price of intra-EU mobile or fixed calls from the consumer’s home country to another EU country will be capped at 19 cents per minute. The cap for intra-EU text messages will be 6 cents per message.

Both regulations approved by the council of ministers are to be signed by the European Council and the European Parliament on 12 December and published in the EU Official Journal on 17 December. Both acts will enter into force 3 days after publication. Member states will have two years’ transition period before the Code needs to be transposed into national laws.

The Council also reviewed the progress of the ePrivacy Regulation. The proposal is aimed to aligned with GDPR and to cover applications such as instant messaging, VoIP, and other web-based communication tools. In November the telecom ministers agreed to delay the vote on the bill, which means the regulation is unlikely to be adopted before the next European election in May 2019.

FCC modifies frequency policy to encourage 5G investment

Changes to licence regulations on 3.5 Ghz have been approved by the FCC in an effort to encourage the 5G rollout.

The 150 MHz wide spectrum on the 3.5 GHz (3550MHz to 3700MHz.) band, or Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), is very busy. Following the rules of the FCC established in 2015, three tiers of users are sharing this band. There are the Incumbent Access Users, in particular the US Navy Radar Operators; the Priority Access Licenses (PALs) which are mainly commercial users like the telcos; and dinally, General Authorized Access (GAA) users which are permitted to use any portion of the 150 MHz frequency so long as it has not been granted to the other two tiers.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who was tasked to lead the review of current regulations and deliberation of new policies with special focus on PALs, claimed the old rules “would not support large-scale deployments, such as mobile or 5G networks… The rules in place favored small-scale, fixed networks, by making it unattractive for any other type of deployment. Basically, the rules were designed so that a select group could get licenses on the cheap.”

The Report and Order published by the FCC on Tuesday October 23 has kept the three tiers in place, but has made modifications to the specific implementations, including:

  • Changes the size of PAL license areas from census tracts to counties;
  • Extends the PAL license term to ten years and makes these licenses renewable;
  • Establishes end-of-term performance requirements;
  • Ensures seven PALs are available in each license area;
  • Allows the use of bidding credits for rural and Tribal entities;
  • Permits partitioning and disaggregation of PALs;
  • Updates information security requirements to protect registration information; and
  • Facilitates transmission over wider channels while maintaining protections for other services

In addition to extending the license term from three years to ten years and changing it from unrenewable to renewable, the new rules also did away with the limitations on the number of PALs a single applicant can have in one licence area (currently capped at four) and the bandwidth a PAL can use (currently limited to 10 MHz).

Ajit Pai, Chairman of FCC, admitted there has been debate on the new size of PAL licence, with different entrenched interest either arguing for maintaining the current census tract-sized licence, or demanding vastly enlarged areas. He had to cite support from Rural Wireless Association and Competitive Carrier Association, which represents smaller carriers, to defend the Commission’s  decision to opt for county-size license.

“We find that county-based licenses are just right,” said Pai. “This compromise will allow most interested parties, large and small, to bid on 3.5 GHz spectrum in order to provide 5G services. License sizes aside, we make other necessary changes today to promote investment and innovation in the 3.5 GHz band, including extending the license terms and giving an expectancy of license renewal.”

Pai also reassured the GAA users that “even after PALs are granted, General Authorized Access users can provide service in the PAL spectrum until licensees deploy. Taken together, these reforms will help make this band a sandbox for 5G and represent another aspect of our comprehensive 5G FAST plan to secure American leadership in the next generation of wireless connectivity.”

The rule modifications might not look revolutionary, but they should prove positive for more aggressive 5G rollout in the US. With the extended licence term and the possibility of renewal the new regulations provide more confidence to investors looking at long term. Meanwhile, it also strikes a balance both to encourage scale and to protect operators with local ambitions only.