The FCC Should Auction the 12 GHz Spectrum

In recent months, efforts to reauthorize the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) auction authority have generated a number of media headlines due to the tremendous role these auctions play in the commercial licensing of spectrum. However, a still significant, and no less important issue that has flown under the radar is the debate over whether the FCC should hold an auction for 12 GHz mid-band radio frequencies.

The 12 GHz band width is, in many ways, the goldilocks of spectrum because it includes 500 MHz of valuable mid-band spectrum. This makes it particularly well suited for two-way communications needed for 5G, and eventually 6G, wireless networks that can deliver connectivity to unserved and underserved communities across America.

However, until fairly recently, this band width was primarily used and operated by large satellite TV providers, most notably DISH Network. Only over the last few years have people proposed using these radio frequencies for other purposes such as SpaceX Starlink program, which has been credited with expanding rural broadband deployment and even helping Ukraine stay connected with the outside world throughout their conflict with Russia. The 12 GHz band width is also increasingly coveted as a lucrative option for wireless market expansion.

Perhaps this is one reason why the DISH Network, which first purchased the band width in the 90s, has expressed a desire to repurpose its satellite spectrum for its use in the 5G market. There is little reason why 12 GHz radio frequencies cannot accommodate both 5G and satellite broadband operations, and DISH wants to cash in on that opportunity. The problem is, existing license holders such as DISH, want this spectrum all to themselves. Worse, they frequently underutilize the spectrum they do own.

DISH has previously been accused of hoarding spectrum and failing to contribute adequate resources to building out a cellular network when it acquired previous spectrum licenses for that purpose. By exploiting FCC loopholes, the company used shell-like small businesses in an attempt to game US taxpayers out of billions of dollars that would have been generated during the regular bidding process.

We already know from the sale of other types of spectrum that a significant amount of revenue can be generated from FCC auctions. For instance, the 2021 C-band auction alone generated $80.9 billion, despite the sale occurring during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The sale of 12 GHz would generate similar economic activity and large sums of money for the U.S. Treasury and American taxpayers. DISH originally paid only $52 million for the 12 GHz spectrum that was exclusively auctioned for satellite use. If the spectrum is to be repurposed for 5G, it should be reauctioned for the tens of billions of dollars it is really worth.

It is in everyone’s best interest that more spectrum is freed up for commercial bidding. As demand continues to grow for America to open up its airwaves to the next generation of broadband technology, it seems only right that other industry stakeholders should have a chance to be a part of that process. The FCC has a responsibility to make sure the spectrum goes to its highest and best use, and its auction proceeds go to paying off the national debt, while compensating DISH for its original satellite spectrum purchase.

However, what the FCC should not due is allow DISH to redefine the nature of its spectrum licenses and gift the company an exclusive right to provide terrestrial mobile services for the 12 GHz bandwidth. That would amount to corporate welfare. The nature of the original spectrum purchases in no way accounted for the new and innovative ways radio frequencies could be used in 2022. It is only fair that DISH should have to bid on these new applications just like everyone else. The FCC should act boldly and set an auction date for 12 GHz radio frequencies as soon as possible.