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CCA members will hash out spectrum issues at Mobile Carriers Show 2023

Next week, CCA hosts its Mobile Carriers Show in Pittsburgh, where smaller wireless carriers (along with T-Mobile) will convene for the annual trade show.

After T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint, it’s now the largest member of CCA, by far, but it’s still loyal to the association and always sponsors the Fierce Wireless opening keynote at the event.

At this year’s opening keynote we’ll be discussing spectrum and how, as a limited resource, it’s top of mind for wireless carriers.

CCA President and CEO Tim Donovan said the topic of spectrum couldn’t be more timely, considering that Congress has allowed the auction authority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to lapse. As a consequence, the FCC says it is unable to issue 2.5 GHz spectrum licenses to T-Mobile, which the carrier won in Auction 108 last summer.

In the meantime T-Mobile is asking the FCC for temporary authority to use its new licenses. And it’s also joined the chorus of industry voices, clamoring for the FCC’s auction authority to be restored.

One former deputy at the FCC said the delay may be related to the Department of Defense (DoD) wanting to wait for a spectrum report that the NTIA is working on regarding spectrum in the 3.1-3.45 GHz.

Donovan said mid-band spectrum in the lower 3 GHz is the “sweet spot” for wireless operators. And he noted that some advocates for the DoD, such as Senate Armed Services Committee member Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) would like more time to study the use of that spectrum.

“I don’t think the FCC would move forward with auctions that would hurt the DoD,” said Donovan.

Fixed wireless access

Asked if any CCA members are concerned about competition from all the fixed wireless access (FWA) activity that’s going on, Donovan said, “There’s a lot of excitement among our members about FWA in terms of funding from BEAD.”

Although the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) has expressed a preference for fiber in terms of dispensing federal BEAD funds, the NTIA has also indicated that other technologies, such as FWA, will be acceptable in locations where it’s too costly to lay fiber.

Donovan said some CCA members that offer mobility in rural areas are now thinking about adding FWA. They’ve noticed that usage patterns are complementary with people using their mobile phones during the day and preferring FWA in the evening.

“It has been complementary for carriers to add that additional benefit and provide a competitive alternative in markets with cable or DSL,” he said.

And of course, T-Mobile and Verizon are both making a big push into FWA.

In terms of NTIA’s preference for fiber when it comes to BEAD funding, Donovan said that will also benefit CCA members. “We’re not against fiber,” he said. “You need closer access for fiber-to-the-tower.”

Huawei rip and replace

Congress still has not acted to close the $3.08 billion funding shortfall for U.S. wired and wireless service providers to replace their Huawei and ZTE equipment in their networks.

Because of the funding shortfall, the FCC has been paying companies a prorated percentage of 39.5% of their reimbursement costs.

“We’re at a pretty perilous point,” said Donovan. Operators need to submit their first request for reimbursement by July 15. “It means they’re implementing a plan right now based on less than 40 cents per dollar,” he said.

But at this point operators can’t just continue to use their Huawei and ZTE gear, which has aged in the years since it was banned in the U.S. They haven’t been able to obtain parts to maintain or repair this equipment. “Networks do need maintenance,” said Donovan. “Carrying on and not trying to replace is not really an option.”

The situation is even more difficult because normally networks are maintained on an ongoing basis, not all at once.

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