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FCC’s Ajit Pai Wants to Speed Up 5G—But Congress Must Act First

February 27, 2018, 1:02 PM UTC

Ajit Pai, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has laid out his strategy for making the U.S. “the best country for innovating and investing in 5G networks.” But it will require some help from Congress.

Speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Pai announced plans to auction off access to radio airwaves in the 28 gigahertz (GHz) and 24GHz spectrum bands, starting in November. This is at the low end of what’s known in the industry as “millimeter wave spectrum,” and it’s key to delivering the very high speeds that 5G promises.

Congress Must Approve Treasury Change

However, for that schedule to work out, Congress will need to make a legal change that allows the Treasury Department to hold prepayments from the big carriers ahead of the auction—according to Pai, banks are not willing to do this anymore due to their capitalization requirements.

“We’re now ready to move forward with a major spectrum auction, and if we don’t get the problem fixed by May 13, our efforts to realize America’s 5G future will be delayed,” Pai told the Barcelona crowd. “I’m pleased that Congress is making bipartisan progress on this issue and am hopeful that we’ll be able to kick off a major spectrum auction in November.”

Samsung Has Earned FCC Okay

Last week the FCC gave Samsung the green light to sell 28GHz base stations in the U.S.—users will be able to use these devices to get fixed 5G broadband services, in lieu of having a high-speed wired connection at home.

The FCC chair also announced that he would “in the coming months” propose a way to make the 3.7-4.2GHz band available for 5G use.

T-Mobile has already said it’s keen on using this spectrum for its 5G deployment, and Pai’s backing adds to existing support from Republican FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly. However, the band is currently being used for fixed satellite services, and the satellite operators and T-Mobile disagree about how the transition should be made.

Apart from the spectrum aspects of the 5G rollout, Pai noted that the FCC has been making it easier for carriers to roll out new infrastructure, by removing “rules that don’t make any sense.” He raised the example of an old rule that added bureaucracy to the replacement of old utility poles.

Net Neutrality Decision Gives ‘Incentive’ for 5G Investment

Pai also waded back into the debate over his net neutrality reversal, arguing that the decision would “give the private sector greater incentives to invest in the 5G networks of the future and bring greater digital opportunity to the American people.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the British telecommunications regulator, Ofcom, announced the names of the carriers that have qualified to take part in upcoming frequency auctions in that country: EE, Hutchison 3G UK (which trades as the Three network), Vodafone, Telefonica, Airspace and Connexin.

The British auction includes a sizeable amount of spectrum in the 3.4GHz band, which Ofcom said would be “central to the roll out of 5G mobile across Europe.”