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5G gets boost in controversial FCC spectrum vote

The agency will make 2.5GHz midband spectrum available for auction, but one commissioner says it's torching a visionary policy in the process.

Sprint 5G

This is the V50 ThinQ, LG and Sprint's first 5G phone.

Lynn La/CNET

The Federal Communications Commission has voted to free up another band of wireless spectrum for next-generation 5G wireless service. But the vote wasn't without controversy. 

On Wednesday, the agency voted 3-2 to auction spectrum in the 2.5GHz band. This sliver of airwaves, known as the Educational Broadband Service, had been set aside for educational purposes during the 1960s. License holders had to be either educational institutions or nonprofits supporting education. These entities, which have gotten access to the spectrum for free, can lease the spectrum to wireless carriers. Sprint uses leased spectrum in the 2.5GHz band for its existing 4G network and these leases are a key reason why T-Mobile proposed spending $26 billion to buy the company, so it could use this so-called midband spectrum to build a 5G service. 

The FCC voted to change the rules for the spectrum and is planning to auction unused or underused spectrum in the band directly to wireless carriers. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called the vote "a major step toward freeing up critical midband spectrum for 5G."

Pai continued: "At long last, we remove the burdensome restrictions on this band, allowing incumbents greater flexibility in their use of the spectrum and introduce a spectrum auction that will ensure that this public resource is finally devoted to its highest-valued use."

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The vote comes as the FCC is trying to free up more spectrum for 5G. In the US, carriers Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint have already launched 5G service in some markets. A variety of wireless airwaves are needed to ensure the service has the capacity and network footprint to reach consumers throughout the country. The next generation of wireless, 5G is expected to increase network speeds and make networks more responsive. The technology could help make applications like autonomous vehicles a reality and will deliver new AR and VR experiences to smartphones

In May the FCC announced raising $2 billion in its second 5G spectrum auction, selling off a batch of millimeter-wave (mmWave) high-bandwidth spectrum in the 24GHz band. The first 5G spectrum auction, which ended in January, saw the FCC raise more than $700 million when it auctioned licenses in the 28GHz mmWave band after opening up bidding in November.

The opposition

Though everyone on the FCC agrees the agency should be doing all it can to enable 5G services, the vote wasn't without controversy.  Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who's criticized the agency for not doing more to free up midband spectrum, voted against the item because, she said, it didn't do enough to benefit education.

She summed up her opposition in a tweet: "The Kennedy Administration did something visionary. It set aside wireless spectrum for educational use, to explore how learning and technology could combine. Today the @FCC burns this policy down."

In a statement, Rosenworcel said the FCC should've been more creative in how it structured the auction and what it planned to do with the proceeds. She suggested the agency offer an incentive auction that would allow current educational institutions that hold licenses to decide whether they want to offer up those licenses for a cut of the profits. Then she suggested the agency should use the proceeds from the auction to fund solutions to solve the "homework gap." 

Rosenworcel pointed to the FCC's 600MHz incentive auction in 2012 as a good model. This auction let broadcast license holders offer up their spectrum, and the proceeds from the auction were used to help fund a nationwide public safety network.

"We should take this model and reimagine it for education in the digital age," she said.  "While our first incentive auction connected first responders, our next could free midband spectrum for 5G, and connect students."

The FCC also voted Wednesday to establish procedures for an auction of high-band spectrum that will be used for 5G. This auction is scheduled for later this year and is expected to be the largest ever in the US.

Taking aim at San Francisco

Additionally, the FCC voted Wednesday to override part of a San Francisco city ordinance aimed at encouraging competition among broadband providers in apartment buildings. The agency's two Democrats opposed this measure. 

The ordinance, adopted in 2016, required building owners to allow competing internet service providers to use existing wiring in order to promote competition among multiple broadband providers. The Republicans on the FCC said the measure deters broadband companies from deploying wiring in apartments. But Roseworcel argued that the FCC was overstepping its authority by pre-empting a local ordinance. 

Relaxing 'kid vid' rules

In another controversial move, the FCC voted 3-2 to relax rules governing children's television programming to allow broadcasters more flexibility in delivering educational content for children. 

The move was widely expected and is the first overhaul of the so-called kid-vid rules since they were first adopted nearly 30 years ago. The rules now let broadcasters count up to 52 hours a year of educational specials or short-form programming as part of their obligation to deliver children's programming.

Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who was driving the changes, said the previous limitations were burdensome and out of step with the media landscape in 2019, when TV broadcasters compete for viewing time with online platforms like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon and others. 

Rosenworcel and fellow Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks dissented. Rosenworcel said the children's programming that broadcasters were required to air at regularly scheduled times was only a small fraction of their programming and wasn't a difficult obligation to fill. She said she was saddened by the FCC's rule change.

"We make it harder for parents to find content by reducing regularly scheduled programming," she said. "We shuttle off programming to multicast streams that most people don't watch and few parents are ever likely to locate."