FCC Sets Stage for Next Spectrum Incentive Auction at April Open Meeting

It’s once again full speed ahead on spectrum and 5G deployment at the FCC, as the agency plans to take action at its next open meeting scheduled for April 12, 2019 on a slew of measures aimed at making additional millimeter wave (“mmW”) frequencies available to support 5G wireless technologies, the Internet of Things, and other advanced services. Topping the agenda, the agency expects to propose procedures for the simultaneous auction of spectrum for commercial wireless services in three mmW bands encompassing 3400 megahertz. As we previously reported, the proposal would clear the way for the FCC’s second-ever incentive auction (the first being the March 2017 broadcast spectrum incentive auction) designed to clear out incumbent licensees by offering payments in exchange for relinquishing current spectrum holdings. The agency also anticipates reforming access to mmW bands to facilitate the auction and extending long-standing protections for over-the-air reception devices (“OTARD”) to hub and relay antennas essential to 5G network deployment. Rounding out the major actions on the April agenda, the FCC plans to forbear from certain legacy long-distance regulations in the face of increased competition and eliminate the controversial rural rate floor” for high cost universal service support.

You will find more details on the significant April meeting items after the break:

Spectrum Incentive Auction: The draft Public Notice would propose auction application and bidding procedures for licenses in the Upper 37 GHz (37.6-38.6 GHz), 39 GHz (38.6 GHz-40.0 GHz), and 47 GHz (47.2-48.2 GHz) bands. In the first auction phase, participants would bid for generic 100 megahertz blocks in the three mmW bands. The first auction phase also would determine the amount of incentive payments due to incumbent licensees that opted to relinquish their existing spectrum holdings. The second auction phase would establish the specific frequency assignments awarded to the auction winners. The actual number of licenses available for auction is not yet settled and will depend upon how many incumbent licensees previously agreed to give up their existing spectrum holdings for payment or accept modified licenses. The FCC would announce the particular licenses available at auction in advance of the auction application deadline. The FCC expects to complete the auction by the end of 2019.

37 GHz/50 GHz Band Access: The draft Order would facilitate the auction of the Upper 37 GHz band by establishing procedures for the Department of Defense (“DOD”) to operate in this spectrum on a shared basis with commercial wireless operators under limited circumstances. Specifically, the FCC would review DOD requests to use Upper 37 GHz band frequencies, contact potentially-affected commercial wireless licensees, and help coordinate shared usage, if possible. The draft item also would permit the licensing of Fixed-Satellite Service earth stations to transmit in the 50 GHz (50.4-51.4 GHz) band to potentially provide faster, more advanced services.

OTARD Reform: The draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would reform the FCC’s OTARD rule, which currently protects only end-user antennas (e.g., satellite TV dishes) from state, local, or private restrictions. Under the FCC’s proposal, the OTARD protections would be extended to hub or relay antennas used by fixed wireless providers that represent the backbone of emerging 5G networks. The FCC would seek input on how reforming the OTARD rule would impact small antenna infrastructure deployment, particularly in rural areas. The FCC anticipates retaining OTARD rule exceptions for state, local, and private restrictions on antennas based on public safety issues or historic preservation objectives, so long as the restrictions are not overly burdensome and apply in a nondiscriminatory manner.

Legacy Regulation Forbearance: The draft Order would partially grant a petition filed by USTelecom asking the FCC to forbear from enforcing certain legacy long-distance service regulations applicable to former Bell Operating Companies (“BOCs”) and other incumbent carriers. First, the FCC would no longer require incumbent rate-of-return carriers to offer long-distance service through a separate affiliate. Second, the FCC would grant incumbent carriers relief from the provisioning interval” requirement obligating them to fulfill telephone exchange service and exchange access requests within the same period that they provide such services to affiliated entities. Third, the FCC would refrain from requiring incumbent carriers to submit reports about their legacy special access” services. Finally, the FCC would eliminate a BOC-specific requirement to provide nondiscriminatory access to poles, conduits, and rights-of way, finding the obligation duplicative of a similar access rule already imposed on all local exchange carriers. The FCC plans to hold off on USTelecom’s request that it forbear from enforcing its incumbent carrier network element unbundling and resale mandates, but the agency likely will take up this issue before the end of the year.

Rate Floor Elimination: The draft Order would abolish the USF rate floor” that limited the amount of Connect America Fund support received by some rural carriers to build and maintain networks in underserved areas. Today, if a carrier elects to charge its customers less than the rate floor set by the FCC for voice service, the difference between the amount charged and the rate floor is deducted from the amount of USF support received by the carrier. The FCC plans to conclude that this process results in artificially-inflated rates for rural customers and should be eliminated, along with all of the rate floor’s associated reporting and customer notification requirements. The FCC previously froze the rate floor for two years while it considered reforms and the rule’s elimination would prevent a nearly 50% increase in the rate floor scheduled to take effect in July 2019.