The next-generation of wireless technologies – known as 5G – is expected to revolutionize business and consumer connectivity, offering network speeds that are up to 100 times faster than 4G LTE, reducing latency to nearly zero, and allowing networks to handle 100 times the number of connected devices, enabling the “Internet of Things.” Leading policymakers – federal regulators and legislators – are making it a top priority to ensure that the wireless industry has the tools it needs to maintain U.S. leadership in commercial 5G deployments. This blog provides monthly updates on FCC actions and Congressional efforts to win the race to 5G.

Regulatory Actions and Initiatives

Low-Band Spectrum

  • The FCC grants a waiver request for a 600 MHz license to serve a Tribal land area.
    • The FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (“WTB”) released an Order granting Pine Cellular Phones, Inc. (“Pine Cellular”) a limited waiver and a one-year extension – to January 9, 2023 – to meet the Tribal lands bidding credit (“TLBC”) construction requirement associated with one of its 600 MHz licenses. Pine Cellular will use the license to deploy service to the Choctaw Nation communities.

Mid-Band Spectrum

  • Wireless entities reach an agreement with the aviation industry to delay 5G deployments in the C-band.
    • On January 3, 2022, AT&T and Verizon agreed to postpone their initial C-band deployments for two weeks – until January 19, 2022 – to enable the FAA, DoT, and the aviation industry to conduct additional analyses on 5G deployments’ coexistence with radio altimeters. In addition to the precautionary measures to which AT&T and Verizon voluntarily committed on November 24, 2021 and December 31, 2021, AT&T and Verizon agreed to adopt operational conditions to resolve any remaining uncertainties. AT&T and Verizon’s agreement follows an emergency petition to stay initiation of 5G service in certain designated airport locations filed by Airlines for America on December 30, 2021. Airlines for America planned to file in federal court to delay the 5G deployments, however, press reports indicate that the trade association will no longer do so.
    • Chairwoman Rosenworcel stated that Verizon and AT&T’s 5G deployment agreement with the aviation industry “provides the framework and the certainty needed to achieve our shared goal of deploying 5G swiftly while ensuring air safety.”
    • Relatedly, on December 9, 2021, the FAA adopted two new airworthiness directives (“ADs”) for helicopters and transport and commuter category airplanes equipped with radio altimeters. The ADs were prompted by the FAA’s determination that radio altimeters cannot be relied upon to perform their intended function if they experience interference from C-band 5G deployments. The ADs revise helicopter and category airplane flight manuals to include limitations that prohibit certain operations requiring radio altimeter data in certain areas when in the presence of 5G interference. Comments on the ADs are due January 24, 2022.
  • The FCC continues to process and grant waivers to Tribal entities in order to use 2.5 GHz spectrum to serve Tribal land areas.
    • On December 9, 2021, the FCC’s WTB released an Order granting a waiver request submitted by the Navajo Nation regarding the definition of eligible Tribal lands for purposes of the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window. Grant of the waiver will allow the Tribe to provide service to the Eastern Navajo Agency off-reservation trust lands as well as other adjacent and encompassed non-Tribal lands.
  • The FCC grants additional applications for 3.5 GHz band licenses and provides support to an entity seeking to serve Tribal lands in Oklahoma.
    • On December 9, 2021, the WTB released a Public Notice announcing the grant of four additional applications for Priority Access Licenses in the 3550-3650 MHz portion of the 3550-3700 MHz band (“3.5 GHz band”), the auction for which closed on September 2, 2020. A list of the granted applications, sorted by licensee, is available here, and a list of the same applications, sorted by market number is available here.
    • In addition, the WTB released an Order granting a request for waiver filed by Cross Telephone Company, L.L.C. (“Cross”) of the FCC’s definition of “qualifying tribal land” for purposes of obtaining a TLBC for the licenses it won in the 3.5 GHz band auction. Cross was the winning bidder of, among others, four licenses in Osage County, Oklahoma, and grant of the waiver will make it eligible to receive a TLBC in the form of a refund on its gross bid amount for those licenses.
  • The Department of Defense kicks off its 5G spectrum sharing experiment in the 3.1-3.45 GHz band.
    • On December 2, 2021, the Department of Defense issued a Press Release announcing the deployment of a private 5G cellular network at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to evaluate spectrum sharing and the coexistence of airborne radar systems with 5G networks in mid-band spectrum between 3.1 GHz and 3.45 GHz. Twelve vendors won $173 million in awards to conduct the testing, which is expected to last for 39 months.
    • Deb Stanislawski, Director of the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, is quoted as saying: “We must figure out how to share this band if we are to unleash a new wave of network innovation and break the global dependency on compromised 5G networks sold by state-subsidized, antagonistic peer competitors. These experiments are designed to rally both the Department and our industrial base to win at 5G and beyond.”

In the Courts

  • The D.C. Circuit upholds the FCC’s order freeing up 1,200 megahertz of mid-band spectrum in the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi and 5G.
    • On December 28, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued an opinion upholding the FCC’s Report and Order that permits access to the 6 GHz band by unlicensed devices. The Court rejected claims by microwave users, including utilities and public safety, that the rules will not protect incumbent operations. The Court remanded one issue to the FCC – whether the alleged inability of contention-based protocols to protect mobile broadcast operations at 2.4 GHz means there will be interference to those operations at 6 GHz, and whether the Commission should have reserved a “sliver” of the 6 GHz band for mobile broadcast use.
    • FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel and Commissioner Carr issued statements welcoming the Court’s opinion. Chairwoman Rosenworcel stated that the “decision is an important step in clearing the way for next generation Wi-Fi access at a time when it is needed most.” Commissioner Carr noted that the decision “upholds the FCC’s landmark, 2020 decision to increase the amount of mid-band spectrum for Wi-Fi and 5G innovations by a factor of five” and “underscores the FCC’s role as the nation’s lead spectrum regulator.”

5G Networks and Infrastructure

  • The FCC seeks input on a request to revisit its rules on removing and replacing equipment and services that pose a national security risk.
    • On December 20, 2021, the FCC placed on Public Notice a Petition for Reconsideration filed by the Rural Wireless Association (“RWA”) of the FCC’s Third Report and Order establishing rules for removing and replacing equipment and services that pose a national security risk. Oppositions to RWA’s Petition are due January 14, 2022, with replies due January 24, 2022.
    • Relatedly, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau released an Order in response to the Rural Wireless Association and NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association’s request for extension of time to file applications to participate in the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program. Rather than grant the full 30 days requested by the parties, the Bureau granted a 14-day extension. The filing window will now close on January 28, 2022 at 11:59 PM ET.

Legislative Efforts

  • The House passes a bill that would require the FCC to begin planning for 6G.
    • On December 1, 2021, the House passed the Future Uses of Technology Upholding Reliable and Enhanced (FUTURE) Networks Act. The bill was introduced by Representatives Doyle, Johnson, and McBath on June 22, 2021. If enacted, the bill would direct the FCC to establish a 6G Task Force. The Task Force would be required to publish a report on the status of 6G standards setting, the supply chain and cybersecurity limitations of 6G, and how to best work with Federal, State, local, and Tribal governments to leverage 6G, including with respect to siting and deployment. The bill is currently in the Senate.