By Howard Buskirk, originally published in Communications Daily on Friday, January 15, 2021.

Pai FCC Took on Spectrum Bands Previous Administrations Wouldn’t Touch, Carr Says

The Ajit Pai FCC had success in opening spectrum bands for 5G because it was willing to take on other agencies, Commissioner Brendan Carr told an American Enterprise Institute webinar Thursday, less than a week before Pai leaves and a new administration begins. There was a lot of noise about fights with DOD over Ligado and with other agencies, he said. “These disputes have always been there, but prior
[FCCs] kept it below the headline level because they didn’t want to take on the fight,” he said.

The spectrum “cupboard” was empty when Pai became chairman four years ago, Carr said. “Our regulatory process at the FCC at all levels of the government was too slow, and we were holding back these internet builds,” he said. “It’s helping to close the digital divide, and that’s a great thing.”

“There’s a path forward for us to further improve the coordination between agencies,” Carr said. Commissioner Nathan Simington “will be a very valuable voice in these discussions” because he spent time at NTIA, which represents federal spectrum holders, Carr said. Simington will “have a unique perspective and potentially unique standing,” he said.

Carr predicted action on three bands this year, starting with a 2.5 GHz auction. Action is also ripe on 3.45-3.55 GHz, at power levels commensurate with the C band, and in further liberalizing the rules in the 6 GHz unlicensed band, he said. He also expects further action on 42 GHz and other high bands.

Different spectrum bands work better in different areas, and the FCC needs to give the private sector the chance to make decisions, Carr said. “Early on, people thought small cells would only be in the most densely populated parts of the country,” he said. “I’ve seen them in football stadiums and rural parts of the country, main streets in small towns,” he said.

The C-band auction looks like it’s going to be a huge success, though he doesn’t track bidding while an auction is still in progress, Carr said. “That was a tough one,” he said. “That was one where there were a lot of moving pieces, a lot of disagreements, wasn’t a unanimous decision at the FCC,” he said. The key to opening bands is “creativity,” he said.

Carr said he feels pressure to climb towers when he goes out in the field, though he doesn’t like heights. “It’s now become sort of a thing,” he joked: “Not a huge fan of it, actually, but it is a blast to spend time with these crews.” Carr joked he was willing to stay on in his role overseeing wireless infrastructure reform, but that’s unlikely during a Democratic administration.

On a later panel, experts said the Joe Biden FCC could reverse some changes to infrastructure policy made under Pai (see 2101110063).

“Democratic-leaning FCCs have been very receptive to local and state governments” who have “re-ally put forward opposition to what the FCC has done in almost every 5G order that was promulgated,” said Phillips Lytle’s Joel Thayer. The state and local players could seek declaratory rulings altering some changes approved under Pai, he said. “That could alter the scope of these orders, potentially,” he said: “It depends on how receptive the next chairman is to local and state government gripes.”

The Pai FCC limited cities to charging $500 for a zoning permit, per small cell, and required expedited action on applications, said Harris Wiltshire’s Patricia Paoletta. Smaller cities welcomed that approach, she said. “You had pushback from the big cities who had the population and the leverage” to charge higher fees and impose their own time limits, she said. The policies led to the “surge” in tower builds and small cells, she said. “Local governments are already champing at the bit and talking about how they’re going to roll back and restore their right to charge whatever they want, for as long as they want,” she said.

High-band deployments in particular require deployment of millions of small cells, said Peter Rysavy of Rysavy Research. “If there’s a lot of resistance … it really will be a problem for 5G,” he said.