The FCC’s first millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum auction may be seen as a milestone for 5G, because of the regulator’s leadership in getting these high frequency airwaves into operators’ hands, but it will not excite the US Treasury. Provisional winning bids (PWBs) totaled $702,572,410 as the process ended.
The regulator has 107 licenses in the 28 GHz band still available, but has received no further bids, withdrawals or other action after 176 rounds of bidding, which started on November 14. “Therefore, bidding in the Commission’s first auction of Upper Microwave Flexible Use Service licenses has concluded under the simultaneous stopping rule,” the FCC said on January 25. It has announced March 14 as the start date for its next mmWave auction, in 24 GHz.
This may attract higher levels of interest because its licenses will cover major metro areas, which were largely absent from the 28 GHz sale. However, a downside of 24 GHz is that it is unlikely to be a globally harmonized band any time soon. This year’s World Radio Conference is expected to focus on 26 GHz and 39 GHz, leaving the USA with some non-global choices. There is an ecosystem developing around 28 GHz, however, and Verizon’s large-scale deployment in this band may drive this to become, by default, an international frequency. There is currently less momentum behind 24 GHz, and no commercial chipsets, though AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile USA are all expected to participate in the new auction, along with cableco Cox, Windstream Communications and start-up Starry.
So spectrum analysts AllNet Insights & Analytics have estimated that the 24GHz auction could raise between $2.4bn and $5.6bn in bids, far higher than the 28 GHz total. But mmWave auctions are unlikely to be big contributors to treasuries round the world. There is more than enough capacity to go around in these high bands, and most MNOs plan to focus on sub-6 GHz spectrum for years to come, before they need to take on the challenges of moving higher up the frequency range – challenges which include immature ecosystems and issues with propagation. Even in the USA, where AT&T is deploying in 39 GHz and Verizon in 28 GHz, most of the operators have announced 5G strategies focused on sub-6 GHz bands for the first few years at least. Even AT&T will deploy primarily in mid-bands to achieve mobility and coverage, and only Verizon sees mmWave as the core of its 5G deployment right from the start.
Despite all this caution, some researchers and vendors are already eyeing even higher spectrum bands. The mmWave Coalition, whose members include Nokia, Keysight Technologies and New York University (NYU) Wireless, is urging the USA’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to enable greater access to spectrum above 95 GHz for non-federal use. With a few small exceptions, no licensed or unlicensed use of the spectrum above 95 GHz is allowed under FCC rules.
“US competitiveness may be falling behind other countries in the area of spectrum technology above 95 GHz,” the mmWave Coalition said in a filing with the government. “Today’s vitally important transition to 5G is based, in part, on pioneering US spectrum policy innovation from NTIA and FCC starting in 1995 to open up spectrum above 60 GHz. American competitiveness in future generations of technology at high bands is being challenged by a coordinated effort in many countries and is adversely impacted by the lack of a clear and effective national policy above 95 GHz supporting the general goals of the National Spectrum Strategy.”
Last year, the FCC opened up a comment process on potential rules for fixed point-to-point use of up to 102.2 GHz of spectrum in various bands, as well as making up to 15.2 GHz of spectrum available for unlicensed use in several segments and creating a new category of experimental licenses for the 95 GHz to 3 THz range.