Now that FCC chair Ajit Pai has signaled he wants to hold a public auction of the C-Band, midband, spectrum for 5G, the satellite operators with licenses in that spectrum say it should make paying them to get off that spectrum ASAP a condition of participation in an auction.
That came in a new proposal from the C-Band Alliance (CBA) , whose members use the band to deliver network programming from producers to MVPDS and broadcast stations.
Broadcasters and cable operators receive network programming via that C-band spectrum, as well as using it to get remote content, like breaking news, back to the station or news net.
The alliance says the FCC should require bidders to pay for "accelerated clearing" if they want to bid on the spectrum, arguing satellite operators are "uniquely positioned" to provide the speed of repurposing for 5G to help the U.S. win the race to next-gen wireless broadband, a priority for the Trump Administration.
CBA argues that a "mandatory accelerated clearing fee" can free up spectrum in 18 to 36 months, "significantly faster than the customary FCC 10-year relocation period." It also says the move would double the value of the spectrum at auction. citing an analysis by The Brattle Group.
The mandatory fee approach would also remove the specter of protracted litigation holding up the repurposing. CBA members suing the FCC, which they have suggested could be the case if the FCC auctions the spectrum without compensating them beyond moving expenses.
CBA put an ominous exclamation point on that prospect this week, telling the FCC: "Failure to involve the CBA in the transition of the C-band would be legally perilous. Unilateral authorization of new terrestrial mobile operations in any significant portion of the C-band would constitute an unlawful basic and fundamental change to the authorizations held by the members of the CBA."
The new proposal came even as a key congressional committee was mulling the need for speed in C-Band repurposing at a hearing on future tech. FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly told the Hill that speed should be the priority.
Alliance members had wanted private market sales of their spectrum licenses rather than an auction, but legislators on both sides of the aisle have pushed back.
Legislators have been concerned that a private auction, rather than an FCC auction, would deny billions to the Treasury--some estimate an auction could reap up to $60 billion--while putting in in the hands of foreign satellite companies.
The alliance is trying to convince policymakers that its proposal is the best way to free up C-Band (midband) satellite spectrum for terrestrial 5G while protecting incumbent cable and satellite operators and getting money to the treasury for rural broadband buildouts or whatever else the government wants to do with it.
The C-Band is used by, among others, broadcasters and cable operators to receive programming networks and for field-to-studio transmissions.
“I’m very sympathetic to CBA’s position regarding the need for the FCC to ensure that any repurposing plan for the C-Band includes sufficient financial incentives for the incumbent satellite operators to actively cooperate," said Free State Foundation President Randolph May, a former top FCC legal official (May supported CBA's market-based approach to clearing the spectrum). "First, while the legal matter is not entirely free from doubt, I think the satellite operators certainly have a non-frivolous argument that the Commission can’t act in a way that modifies their licensees without obtaining their consent. The operators' consent depends on receiving adequate compensation, regardless of the label put on the payment. If they resist and there is litigation, the Commission risks losing, and, in any event, there will be more delay. From a policy perspective, the satellite operators are correct, as I have contended, that delay in repurposing the spectrum harms overall consumer welfare. This harm includes the risk of falling behind in 5G deployment.
"In short, the focus should not be on any potential near-term taxpayer gains, but medium to long-term consumer welfare gains. Free market advocates especially should be sensitive to the idea that licensees have some form of cognizable property interest in their licensees that impose legal constraints on actions by the FCC or other government entities that have the effect of reducing the value of the license."