On March 27th, President Trump signed a $2.2 trillion relief bill to help Americans cope with the economic pain caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Now that the federal government has committed those funds, it’s time for Congress and federal agencies to figure out how to offset that gargantuan cost. Fortunately, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is doing just that by selling off wireless spectrum (known as the C-Band) through a public auction to bring in tens of billions of dollars in revenue. This is more good news from an agency that is committed to keeping the country connected with their #KeepAmericansConnected campaign.
Under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC has brought hundreds of internet companies together to keep the digital domain up-and-running for hundreds of millions of Americans. The FCC can continue that work and keep taxpayers afloat by auctioning off critical C-band spectrum.
Even in 2020, fast, reliable internet is a luxury afforded to residents of cities and suburbs with well-trotted cable lines. Internet in rural America is often spotty or non-existent. And, heavier-than-usual telework and streaming traffic due to stay-at-home orders is causing further strain on internet connectivity. The FCC is doing its best to alleviate that concern and may be able to turn the tide with the arrival of nationwide 5G internet standards.
The next generation of wireless, 5G, promises to be at least ten times faster than the current standard of 4G. And, as a bonus, 5G doesn’t require the high fixed costs of 4G that often makes commercial lines to rural areas unviable. But there’s a catch: the latest and greatest generation of internet standards will require large chunks of radio spectrum to transmit data across the country.
By all accounts, the C-band of radio spectrum has all the right stuff for 5G deployment and can carry large loads of data over long distances. After months of debate and discussion, in November 2019 the FCC approved a public spectrum auction to make the C-band available for 5G deployment. An attempt by a group of companies to proceed with a “private sale” could have dragged on for years in the courts with taxpayers only receiving a pittance for the valuable spectrum. The FCC rightly determined that a public auction is the fastest and most judicious way to make more spectrum available for 5G.
The companies pushing for this deeply flawed “private sale” approach were concerned about the FCC’s ability to conduct an auction of C-band spectrum. The truth is that the FCC has an excellent track record of conducting public auctions and has successfully concluded more than 100 auctions that have brought in more than $120 billion for taxpayers since 1994.
While the 2020 C-band auction itself is no cause for concern, internet providers are facing the possibility that the agency will postpone future auction proceedings due to the pandemic. The FCC is, after all, hard at work keeping Americans protected against internet disruptions and up to date on COVID-19 phone and text-based scams. And understandably, the agency is encouraging its employees to telework whenever possible and avoid meetings and large-scale gatherings.
Despite the hoopla and sensible safety precautions, the FCC is still seemingly on track to kickstart C-Band auction proceedings at the end of the year. John Eggerton of Multichannel News reported on March 30th that, “according to senior FCC officials speaking on background Monday (March 30) about the impact of COVID-19 on FCC processes and actions… The FCC has no plans to postpone its planned [December] auction of C-Band spectrum.” And in the meantime, the agency appears poised to temporarily grant wireless providers additional spectrum to help them cope with the sudden spike in demand. Balancing these immediate concerns with long-run concerns (i.e. C-Band auction proceedings) isn’t easy, but the FCC is demonstrating that it is up to the task.
The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting everyone hard. It’s reassuring that the FCC is working tirelessly to keep the internet working for hundreds of millions of households while still moving forward with the C-band wireless spectrum auction which could bring in tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. Treasury. This is the kind of leadership that America deserves and needs during this difficult time.