FCC Plans to Finalize Phase I RDOF Auction Procedures and Explore 5G Use of High-Band Frequencies at June Meeting

The FCC plans to focus on bread and butter” issues of broadband deployment and expanding commercial spectrum use at its next meeting, scheduled for June 9, 2020. Specifically, the FCC anticipates adopting final auction procedures for Phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (“RDOF”), which will provide up to $16 billion over 10 years to support broadband deployment in rural and other hard-to-serve areas. Rejecting calls for delay during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the FCC would commence the auction on October 29, 2020. The FCC also would address bidding area, performance requirement, and letter of credit issues that drew heated debate at the rulemaking stage. In addition, the FCC anticipates seeking comment on rule changes to expand use of high-band spectrum in the 71-76 GHz, 81-86 GHz, 92-94 GHz, and 94.1-95 GHz bands (“70/80/90 GHz Bands”) to support wireless 5G backhaul and other services. The 70/80/90 GHz Bands proposal is just the latest in a slew of FCC actions designed to open up more spectrum for commercial use, and would seek input on technical and operational rules to avoid interference to incumbent operations. Rounding out the major June items, the FCC plans to clarify key timeframes and criteria for state and local reviews of requests to modify existing wireless infrastructure to remove purported barriers to network improvements.

Covering the gamut of network funding, spectrum resources, and construction, the June meeting items will impact nearly all providers of 5G and other next-generation technologies and deserve close attention. You will find more information on the significant June meeting items after the break:

RDOF Phase I Auction Procedures: The FCC’s draft Public Notice would establish RDOF Phase I auction procedures that largely mirror the agency’s initial proposals for the program. In particular, the FCC would require auction participants to bid by census block group and establish an auction weighting mechanism that favors higher-speed, lower-latency services when awarding support. Auction winners would be required to offer service at the bid-upon performance level to 40% of the supported locations by the end of the third full calendar year following funding authorization and to an additional 20% of locations each year thereafter. As expected, service providers would be required to file a short-form application including basic ownership, technical, and financial information to participate in the auction, followed by a long-form application from auction winners providing detailed network descriptions and deployment plans. Auction winners would be obligated to obtain a letter of credit that would increase in value until the service providers begin to satisfy their deployment milestones. Service providers would not be required to receive designation as an eligible telecommunications carrier by the FCC or state authority to participate in the RDOF Phase I auction, but they would need to receive such designation before receiving any funding under the program.

Expanding High-Band Frequency Access: The FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Order would seek comment on proposed changes to the rules governing the use of the 70/80/90 GHz Bands to support wireless 5G backhaul and broadband services onboard aircrafts and ships. First, the FCC would propose changes to antenna standards for the 70 and 80 GHz Bands to permit the use of smaller antennas and ask whether it should make similar changes to the standards for the 90 GHz Band. Second, the FCC would seek input on authorizing point-to-point links to endpoints in motion in the 70 and 80 GHz Bands and classifying those links as mobile” services to support new offerings. Third, the FCC would request comment on whether it should change its link registration process for the 70/80/90 GHz Bands to eliminate never-constructed links from third-party registration databases, thereby opening the spectrum for new registrations. Finally, the FCC would propose power limits and other technical and operational rules to prevent harmful interference to incumbent operations in the 70/80/90 GHz Bands. As the 70/80/90 GHz Bands are currently allocated to co-primary Federal and non-Federal use, the FCC would coordinate any rule changes with affected federal agency incumbents through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Clarifying State/Local Wireless Review: The FCC’s Declaratory Ruling and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would clarify agency rules implementing Section 6409(a) of the Spectrum Act of 2012, which streamlines state and local reviews of requests to modify existing wireless infrastructure. Section 6409(a) and associated FCC rules require state and local governments to approve modification requests for existing wireless towers and base stations within 60 days as long as the modification does not substantially change” the physical dimensions of the tower or base station. However, confusion exists among service providers and government authorities on when this 60-day shot clock begins. The FCC would clarify that the 60-day shot clock begins to run when a requester takes the first procedural step in a locality’s application process and submits written documentation showing that a proposed modification is eligible for streamlined treatment under Section 6409(a). The FCC would find that this approach would prevent localities from effectively postponing wireless network modifications through multiple interim procedural hurdles. The FCC also would clarify what types of infrastructure modifications represent a substantial change” that would not qualify for streamlined treatment under Section 6409(a).