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What's New in 5G - April 2020

The next-generation of wireless technologies – known as 5G – is here. Not only is it expected to offer network speeds that are up to 100 times faster than 4G LTE and reduce latency to nearly zero, it will allow networks to handle 100 times the number of connected devices, revolutionizing business and consumer connectivity and enabling the “Internet of Things.” Leading policymakers – federal regulators and legislators – are making it a top priority to ensure that the wireless industry has the tools it needs to maintain U.S. leadership in commercial 5G deployments. This blog provides monthly updates on FCC actions and Congressional efforts to win the race to 5G. 

Regulatory Actions and Initiatives 

COVID-19 Relief

  • The FCC provided relief to several wireless service providers to keep Americans connected during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing them to continue to provide and expand their 5G offerings during this unprecedented time.  
    • Throughout March, the FCC granted emergency requests to allow carriers, including AT&T, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon, to operate temporarily on additional spectrum to help keep Americans connected. The authorizations allow the carriers to operate on spectrum that is licensed to other carriers as well as unassigned spectrum that has been sitting in the FCC’s inventory so that Americans can engage in teleworking, telehealth, and distance learning while the Nation combats COVID-19. 
  • The FCC also provided relief to 33 wireless Internet service providers (“WISPs”) to help meet the demand on the Nation’s broadband networks during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
    • On March 27, 2020, the FCC granted special temporary authority (“STA”) to 33 WISPs to operate in the lower 45 megahertz of the 5.9 GHz band (5850-5895 MHz) so that they can provide their customers continued access to residential fixed broadband services during these challenging times. The lower 45 megahertz of the 5.9 GHz band is currently being evaluated by the FCC for unlicensed uses, like Wi-Fi. The FCC, however, granted the STAs to allow WISPs to use the spectrum for 60 days across 330 counties in 29 states to support rural telework, remote learning, and telehealth. 

3.5 GHz

  • The FCC approved two updated Environmental Sensing Capability (“ESC”) registrations for the 3550-3650 MHz (“3.5 GHz”) band, continuing to prepare the band for full commercial operations. 
    • On March 26, 2020, the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (“Wireless Bureau”) and the Office of Engineering and Technology released a Public Notice approving CommScope’s and Google’s revised ESC sensor deployment and coverage plans. ESCs will be used to detect signals from federal radars operating in and around the 3.5 GHz band, which will allow them to be protected when commercial operations are deployed in the band. Both CommScope and Google are authorized to operate their ESC sensors in the 3.5 GHz band. The updated plans indicate that CommScope and Google have satisfied the sensor coverage requirements for additional dynamic protection areas.  
  • The FCC announced a nearly one-month delay in its next auction of mid-band spectrum for 5G services because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • On March 25, 2020, the FCC’s Office of Economics and Analytics and Wireless Bureau released a Public Notice postponing several dates and deadlines related to Auction 105, the auction of Priority Access Licenses in the 3.5 GHz band, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Applications to participate in Auction 105 are now due May 7, 2020 (they were previously due April 9, 2020), and bidding will begin on July 23, 2020 (previously scheduled for June 25, 2020).
  • The FCC extended the transition period for 3650-3700 MHz band licensees to October 17, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • On March 19, 2020, the FCC’s Wireless Bureau, on its own motion, released an Order extending the deadline for 3650-3700 MHz band licensees to transition their Part 90 operations to Part 96 Citizens Broadband Radio Service operations. Those licensees were required to transition their operations between April 17, 2020 and October 17, 2020 to prepare the 3.5 GHz band for commercial use, but the FCC extended the deadline so that they can continue to provide their customers broadband connectivity and other critical services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now all 3650-3700 MHz band licensees have until October 17, 2020 to complete the transition process.  

2.5 GHz

  • The FCC granted a waiver of its rules to allow the Department of Hawaiian Homelands to apply for unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum before it is auctioned for commercial services.
    • On March 20, 2020, the Wireless Bureau granted the Department of Hawaiian Homelands’ (“DHHL’s”) request for a waiver of the eligibility rules for the 2.5 GHz Tribal priority window to allow DHHL to apply for unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum before it is auctioned. The 2.5 GHz Tribal priority window allows Tribes in rural areas to obtain access to unassigned spectrum over their Tribal lands before the commercial auction. Hawaii, however, has no federally recognized Tribes in the state, and thus is the only state without entities eligible to apply for available spectrum. The Wireless Bureau clarified that the Tribal priority window rules explicitly include Hawaiian Homelands as eligible Tribal lands so that DHHL will be able to take advantage of the window and ensure that Hawaiian Natives have access to unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum. The Wireless Bureau also separately granted A:shiwi College & Career Readiness Center special temporary authority to operate on unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum over the reservation of the Pueblo Zuni in New Mexico in order to boost their wireless broadband services during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Millimeter Wave

  • The FCC announced the close of the largest spectrum auction yet for 5G services.
    • On March 12, 2020, the FCC released a Public Notice announcing that Auction 103, the incentive auction for millimeter wave spectrum licenses in the Upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz bands, closed on March 5, 2020. The auction, which the FCC described as the “largest ever spectrum auction,” raised a total of $4.74 billion in net auction proceeds after incentive payments of $3 billion are made to incumbents who relinquished their existing spectrum usage rights in the bands. Winning bidders were required to submit an application by March 26, 2020 to apply for their licenses, and incumbents must submit an application by April 13, 2020 to obtain their incentive payments.   

Legislative Efforts

  • A bill requiring the federal government to safeguard the security of 5G networks and infrastructure was signed into law.
    • On March 23, 2020, President Trump signed into law the Secure 5G and Beyond Act (S. 893), which requires the President to develop a single, unified strategy to secure 5G networks and infrastructure and direct NTIA to develop a plan to implement that strategy.  
  • A bill that seeks to improve broadband data coverage maps, particularly for purposes of awarding federal funds for 5G deployment was signed into law.
    • On March 23, 2020, President Trump signed into law the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act (S. 1822), which requires the FCC to issue rules requiring the collection of granular broadband service availability data from various providers and create a challenge process for parties to submit independent data challenging the accuracy of FCC broadband maps. The coverage maps developed from the FCC process would be expected to be used to determine the areas eligible support from the 5G Fund, the proposal for which Chairman Pai indicated would be circulated “soon” (see below) and which would make up to $9 billion in Universal Service Fund support available to carriers for the deployment of 5G in rural areas.
  • A bill aimed at securing the supply chain of the Nation’s communications networks, including 5G networks, was signed into law. 
    • On March 12, 2020, the President signed into law the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019, which directs the FCC to publish a list of covered communications equipment and services, prohibits federal funds from being used to purchase those covered equipment or services, and requires the FCC to establish a reimbursement program so that U.S. communications service providers can remove, replace, and dispose of covered equipment or services. The purpose behind the law is to aid carriers, primarily smaller carriers, that have purchased and installed Huawei and other equipment in their networks that pose a national security threat with the removal and replacement of such equipment. 
  • The House Communications Subcommittee advanced a bill that would require mid-band spectrum for 5G services to be cleared by 2022.  
    • On March 10, 2020, House Communications Subcommittee advanced to the full House Commerce Committee the Clearing Broad Airwaves for New Deployment (C-BAND) Act (H.R. 4855), which would require the auction of at least 200 megahertz, and no more than 300 megahertz, of C-band spectrum by September 30, 2022. It would also require that existing C-band users are left with equal or better service than they have today.  
  • The Senate held a hearing on the FCC’s FY 2021 budget in which several spectrum proceedings impacting 5G services were discussed. 
    • On March 10, 2020, the Senate held a hearing on the FCC’s FY 2021 Budget Estimate. In his testimony, Chairman Pai emphasized that the U.S. is leading in 5G by delivering low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum, including by completing three 5G auctions in the millimeter wave bands, conducting an auction for 3.5 GHz spectrum on June 25, 2020 (see above), and starting an auction of mid-band spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz range on December 8, 2020. In addition, Chairman Pai highlighted that the FCC has focused on promoting wireless infrastructure and modernizing regulation to encourage fiber deployment and that he intends to circulate a proposal soon to establish the 5G Fund to help bring 5G connectivity to hard-to-serve areas with sparse populations or rugged terrain. 

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Russell H. Fox is a wireless communications attorney at Mintz. He guides clients through federal legislative, regulatory, and transactional matters. Russell also participates in FCC proceedings, negotiates spectrum agreements, and represents clients in spectrum auctions.

Angela Y. Kung

Member / Chair, Technology, Communications & Media Practice

Angela Y. Kung draws on significant knowledge of the wireless regulatory landscape and experience at the FCC to advise clients on FCC rules and procedures. With particular expertise on spectrum use policies and auction procedures, she has shepherded Mintz's clients through several FCC auctions related to next-generation 5G wireless technologies and routinely advocates on behalf of clients to help ensure that the agency’s rules align with their interests.
Christen B'anca Glenn is a Mintz attorney who advises communications and technology clients on regulatory and compliance matters before the FCC.