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FCC kicks off 5G spectrum auction to help make hype reality

Better get dibs on it fast, carriers.

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For the first time, the Federal Communications Commission is auctioning spectrum for 5G.

On Wednesday, the FCC is opening up the bidding for spectrum in the 28GHz band, with a total of a little more than 3,000 county-based licenses up for grabs. That will be followed immediately by an auction of spectrum in the 24GHz band.

Then in 2019, the agency plans to conduct auctions in three other spectrum bands.

Altogether, it'll make for a huge amount of 5G wireless capability being opened up to commercial use by the end of next year -- "more spectrum than is currently used for terrestrial mobile broadband by all wireless service providers combined," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement Wednesday.

It won't take long for all that spectrum to get put to use. Carriers around the world have been pushing hard to get ready for 5G, the next generation of cellular technology, which promises to greatly enhance internet speeds, coverage and responsiveness for wireless networks. This means, for instance, that you'll be able to stream HD videos on your mobile network, or doctors might be better able to perform remote surgery. In addition, 5G networks could host many more internet of things devices at the same time.

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There's been a lot of hype along the way, but wireless carriers are now making the pivot to reality, with 5G on the cusp of becoming available for use by businesses and consumers.

In the US, for instance, Verizon last month began a limited, and somewhat controversial, 5G home broadband service, and in 2019 it plans to begin mobile 5G service. AT&T has plans to begin mobile 5G service in three US cities before the end of this year.

The FCC is trying to get more spectrum into the market so more businesses can make use of it. It also wants to get the 5G spectrum to carriers that are mostly likely to deploy 5G networks in the US.

"Having 5G networks will open the door to new services and applications that will grow our economy and improve our standard of living," Pai said at the White House 5G Summit in September. "We're working hard with other federal agencies to free up spectrum currently held by the federal government."

For the 28GHz spectrum, 3,072 licenses will be up for sale to 40 qualified bidders (the identities of the bidders haven't been revealed). The FCC will conduct two rounds of auctions Wednesday and three rounds on Thursday and beyond till all the licenses are sold. The auction for the 24GHz spectrum, involving 2,909 licenses, will be scheduled afterward. Currently, 58 applications are waiting for approval.

The agency will also give bidding credits to eligible small businesses and rural service providers, which means the smaller carriers have a chance to get a 15 percent discount or a 25 percent discount on their winning bids, according to an FCC fact sheet.

Auctions for 37GHz, 39GHz and 49GHz spectrum bands will be held in the second half of 2019.

Originally published Nov. 13 at 2:39 p.m. PT.
Updated Nov. 14 at 8:33 a.m. PT: Added Ajit Pai statement from Wednesday, plus background information.

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