By Drew FitzGerald
The Trump administration on Monday outlined a plan to commercialize a broad swath of military radio frequencies for use in next-generation 5G networks, yielding to cellphone carriers that have sought the spectrum for their own use.
The White House plan would arrange for the Federal Communications Commission to auction 100 megahertz of prized mid-band spectrum starting in December 2021, allowing telecom companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications to bid on licenses for them. The telecom industry has long sought the rights for more mid-band spectrum, which is considered ideal for new fifth-generation wireless signals because of its extensive bandwidth and reach.
"Under this administration's approach, the American private sector will continue to build the next 5G networks," White House technology adviser Michael Kratsios said during a telephone briefing with reporters.
The framework, if adopted, would strike a rare compromise among the Pentagon, FCC and other Trump administration agencies that have sometimes squabbled over federal 5G policies. Department of Defense officials resisted past efforts to turn over its reserved frequencies to the private sector. The mid-band spectrum at issue serves naval radar systems, missile control and air traffic, among other uses.
The latest compromise grew from a new multiagency task force launched within the past year to coordinate the use of mid-band spectrum, according to people familiar with the matter. Other countries, including China, have already commercialized that mid-band spectrum.
Recent technological advances have made it possible for telecom companies to send data over shared military frequencies when high-priority users like aircraft carriers aren't using them. An ongoing auction of nearby spectrum has shown that mid-band frequencies are in high demand. That auction for Citizens Broadband Radio Service licenses had fetched more than $3 billion in bids by late Monday.
The Department of Defense agreed to subject its next auction to fewer restrictions than those governing the CBRS band. Industry experts expect another swath of unrelated mid-band spectrum to fetch tens of billions of dollars in another auction set to kick off in December.
Meredith Attwell Baker, chief of the wireless industry association CTIA, welcomed Monday's move to open more airwaves to "full power commercial operations," meaning smartphones and cell towers could exchange data without limiting their signal strength.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who last week visited the White House for an unrelated event to promote telehealth services, called Monday's decision "a key milestone in securing United States leadership in 5G."
"The FCC looks forward to moving quickly to adopt service rules for the 3.45 GHz band and then hold an auction to bring this prime mid-band spectrum to market," Mr. Pai said in a statement.
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