FCC votes to auction C-band satellite spectrum for 5G use

And potentially pay satellite operators billions for the trouble.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai has been pressing for an auction of "mid-band" wireless spectrum that could be useful for expanding the reach of 5G, and on Friday the commission voted to approve rules for just such a redistribution. The rules cover "C-Band" spectrum that satellite companies like Intelsat, SES SA and Telesat are currently using, and include payment incentives for those companies to speed plans to shift operations away from those frequencies by dates in 2021 and 2023. Otherwise, the spectrum will need to be freed up no later than December 5th, 2025.

Those payments could add up to $9.7 billion, and dissenting FCC commissioners argued that there wasn't enough consideration on how much they should be or how funds from the auction should be distributed, and that the FCC was misusing its powers under the law. Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement (PDF) that, "We could start a fund a new initiative to help with rural broadband. We could fund the nation's transition to next-generation 911, which is sorely needed and would benefit public safety in every state. Or we could use some of the revenues to seed a Homework Gap Trust Fund to help our nation's students stuck in the digital divide. It could support WiFi hotspots for loan in every school library—and virtually eliminate the Homework Gap overnight."

Following previous proclamations, Pai again claimed they will assist in closing the digital divide between city and rural areas. In his own statement, he said " it would be irresponsible for me to do nothing on a spectrum band vital for 5G in the hopes that a Congress under divided control and in an election year is going to pass C-band legislation addressing the difficult issues ably resolved by this Order."

There's no date set for the auction yet, and as Reuters notes, the FCC has previously said that it will require new satellites to be launched, and filters placed on ground stations. There's also pending legislation that could reduce those incentive payments, and in a statement Sen. John Kennedy (R) said "We still don't know how the chairman arrived at his $15 billion gift. Why not surrender $14 billion to the foreign satellite giants, who don't even own the airwaves they've been using? Why not $16 billion? We're in real need of transparency here. Shelling out billions for airwaves we already own is no way to handle taxpayer money—especially when taxpayers want those dollars to support rural broadband."

Verizon (owner of Engadget's parent company), AT&T and T-Mobile previously expressed support for the plan, and on Friday, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said "5G services fueled by mid-band spectrum will enable new innovations, vast economic opportunities and game-changing products and technologies for all American consumers and businesses. Verizon fully supports the FCC's actions."

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