What’s the Problem  With FCC Auction 110?


JULY 2021

The next major FCC auction for mid-band spectrum, in the 3.45 to 3.55 GHz band is scheduled to begin October 5, 2021. According to the FCC’s Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, auction 110 is a key step on the path toward delivering a 5G future as well as brings us closer to 5G service that is fast, secure, resilient, and most importantly, available across the country.

The FCC has had 3 auctions since 2020 but, this auction is important because mid-band spectrum has been viewed as the band for 5G services that offer more capacity at higher speeds than lower bands of spectrum, while having better propagation for distance and coverage than high-band millimeter wave.

Auction 110: 3.45 GHz, will unload 4,060 licenses from 3.45 to 3.55 GHz band. The bands will be divided into ten 10-megahertz blocks that will be licensed by geographical divisions called partial economic areas (PEAs)-the same method was used for the FCC’s 600 MHz auction. Auction 110 will only allow bidders to win 40MHz max in an effort to increase auction participation from small private sector buyers that cannot outbid giant corporations like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. This auction was rushed into place in a joint effort by the FCC, NTIA, and the DoD. It was put together quickly due to Congress’s directive in the consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 that stated that these airwaves must be auctioned off by December 31st, 2021.

WISPA, the wireless internet service providers association are concerned that,

“The FCC’s vote was a missed opportunity to take a step back and open up a much larger amount of 3 GHz military spectrum using a sharing framework that enables a wider variety of users and use cases. Unfortunately, in a Commission divided 2-2, the combination of a statutory auction deadline and the need to raise over $14 billion to clear military radar (i.e., engineering to transition these frequencies) has resulted in a framework that makes the licenses affordable only to the biggest mobile carriers,” said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America’s Open Technology Institute, adding that he expects “a repeat of the recent C-band auction, in which AT&T and Verizon won 90 percent of the licenses.”

The main complication of this auction is that the licenses being bid on are being reallocated from the military. This raises the question of, when will the licenses be reallocated by, and when will the buyer be able to use it? License winners will need to coordinate with incumbent federal military users who need to maintain or utilize the spectrum either at the specified location or during certain periods of time which raises a red flag for many bidders. Many of the usual winners of the FCC auctions have publicly shown their concerns about this auction and that they are not excited about the lack of information being provided by the DoD on the licenses that are up for auction.

Conclusion: all the stakeholders in Auction 110 – including mobile operators, FCC, the Department of Defense – have major concerns about how and when they’ll be able to deploy these 3.45-3.55 MHz band licenses. With these concerns comes the probability this auction gets pushed back from its current scheduled start date of October 5th, 2021, likely into 2022 – notwithstanding Congress’s directive in the consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 that stated these airwaves must be auctioned off by December 31st, 2021.