COVID-19 and the Need for Established Systems of Spectrum Reallocation

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2Q 2020 | IN-5783

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) have granted 33 Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) access to 45 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band (i.e., spectrum between 5,850 and 5,895 MHz). This Special Temporary Authority (STA) for the WISPs, which would last for 60 days starting from March 27, 2020, is to address the demand of data from the social distancing measures (due to COVID-19) of the heavily afflicted rural counties. As stated by the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), “…members are seeing over a 35% bump in traffic in peak hours, with 90% of them getting customer requests to add more speed to their plans.”

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COVID-19 and Connectivity

NEWS


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) have granted 33 Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) access to 45 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band (i.e., spectrum between 5,850 and 5,895 MHz). This Special Temporary Authority (STA) for the WISPs, which would last for 60 days starting from March 27, 2020, is to address the demand of data from the social distancing measures (due to COVID-19) of the heavily afflicted rural counties. As stated by the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), “…members are seeing over a 35% bump in traffic in peak hours, with 90% of them getting customer requests to add more speed to their plans.”

This expedited process of STA granting by the FCC and the NTIA has equipped these rural communities with bolstered capacity for unlicensed operations, such as Wi-Fi, during this period of mass quarantine. Additionally, at least 71 broadband, wireless, and telephone service operators are heeding the call of the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” by agreeing to halt service terminations due to unpaid bills, waive any late fees, and open their Wi-Fi hotspots to any person that needs access for the next 60 days.

Growing Demands for Spectrum

IMPACT


The outbreak of COVID-19 serves as a huge test to the operational resiliencies of businesses/institutions across the global economy. Social distancing measures have spurred companies to pivot to work from home arrangements, while educational institutions such as universities would have no choice but to conduct lectures and classes via online video streaming for the foreseeable future. The common thread that runs across the aforementioned scenarios is that maintained productivity in this post-corona world is contingent on the capabilities of networks in handling this atypical surge in demand for bandwidth.

Besides WISPs, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have also began their respective efforts to increase their network readiness. Verizon has increased its Capital Expenditures (CAPEX) by US$500 million (or 3%), amounting to US$17.5 to US$18.5 billion for 2020 to accelerate Verizon’s 5G transition and to be better prepared to cope with the increase of data usage from COVID-19. Verizon is also increasing its vigilance in monitoring data traffic activity across its coverage areas, with plans to emphasize the needs of hospitals, first responders, and government agencies.

Besides network densification and data traffic management, another aspect of preparing for this influx of data demand is possessing adequate amounts of spectrum—a resource that is finite and highly sought after by many industries and services. Dish Network, a satellite television company, through its own discretion, has agreed to lease entire spectrum portfolio (486 licenses) in the 600 MHz band to T-Mobile and 20MHz (in AWS-4 spectrum) along with 6MHz (in the 700MHz spectrum) to AT&T, free-of-charge for 60 days to help these MNOs handle the impact of data demands from COVID-19. These acts of magnanimity from Dish Network shed light on how current spectrum allocation and utilization is evidently not as efficient as we would like it to be. Dish Network has a treasure trove of unused spectrum at its disposal that would have otherwise gone unused if not for a global pandemic.

Spectrum as a Tradable Commodity

RECOMMENDATIONS


Dish Network’s leasing of its unused, hoarded spectrum highlights the current allocative inefficiencies of spectrum and the need for a marketplace that can provide more options for buyers requiring spectrum resources. MNOs should not expect gestures such as Dish Network’s generosity toward T-Mobile and AT&T to be the norm in spectrum resource allocation. Companies leasing spectrum for free (on its own whims) in times of crisis is neither an optimal nor a sustainable method for efficient spectrum allocation to other companies/use cases that need them.

ABI Research’s Making Spectrum Fit for 5G Services and Competition (PT-2272) Application Analysis Report recommends that primary and secondary trading spectrum platforms would help increase the cumulative supply of spectrum. Spectrum holders would now have more flexibility (not confined to their long-term spectrum licenses) to lease/sell spectrum in these secondary markets and would-be buyers of spectrum would consequently have access to a larger supply of spectrum (as opposed to just getting spectrum from regulators). Market mechanisms with an understood system of value would also incentivize more holders of surplus spectrum in parting with their unused spectrum resources to other use cases/services that require it. Rivada Networks is a company that offers trading platforms where buyers (such as MNOs) and sellers (incumbent holders of spectrum) can participate in a platform that allows spectrum to be bought and sold. Rivada’s patented Dynamic Spectrum Arbitrage allocates spectrum resources to organizations that need it and facilitates bidders in buying the spectrum (in advance or in real time) through its Open Access Market platform.

The utility of spectrum as a tradable commodity would also extend beyond scenarios of MNOs handling sudden influxes of demand for mobile and broadband data. Spectrum trading would also complement and enable quicker deployments of the diverse scope of 5G scenarios; Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication (uRLLC), and massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC).

COVID-19 and the ensuing increase in data demand are emblematic of scenarios that require expedited reallocations of spectrum. Spectrum trading platforms would serve instrumental for timely spectrum allocations (via market mechanisms) to services that need them most.