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AT&T and satellite TV provider Dish Network are the top winners of airwaves once reserved for military use that will soon be used for 5G wireless service in the Federal Communications Commission’s latest auction, the agency said Friday

AT&T spent $9.1 billion and Dish spent $7.3 billion for licenses of wireless spectrum that sits between the 2.5 gigahertz and 3.5GHz range of frequencies on the radio spectrum. T-Mobile was the third highest bidder in the auction, spending $2.9 billion. Verizon Communications did not participate in the auction. 

The so-called midband spectrum that was auctioned off is considered crucial for mobile operators’ deployment of next generation of wireless service known as 5G, which promises to deliver much faster wireless service and a more responsive network. Its ability to connect more devices and offer real-time feedback is expected to spark a sea change in how we live and work, ushering in new advances like self-driving cars and advanced augmented reality experiences.

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“Today’s 3.45 GHz auction results demonstrate that the Commission’s pivot to mid-band spectrum for 5G was the right move,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. 

Midband spectrum, which is in the , provides more-balanced coverage and capacity due to its ability to cover a several-mile radius with 5G, despite needing more cell sites than lower-tiered spectrum bands. 

This swath of spectrum has been used exclusively by the federal military, which used it for naval radar systems, missile control and air traffic control. In 2020, the Trump administration and the Department of Defense determined it could be shared with commercial providers for 5G service

The auction began in October 2021 under the Biden administration. The FCC said revenue from the auction topped $22.5 billion. Congress required a portion of the proceeds to be used to pay for new equipment. This will ensure that existing military equipment can coexist with cell towers and other equipment used by wireless carriers when they deploy 5G service. All other money from the auction will go to the US Treasury. 

Spectrum is king

Wireless carriers have been clamoring to open up more untapped or undertapped airwaves as demand for mobile services increases. The FCC has been working to repurpose swaths of spectrum from other industries, including satellite and TV broadcast, to free up space for new mobile phone technologies. The agency has also looked outside commercial entities for spectrum, coordinating efforts with government agencies, such as the Defense Department to provide commercial providers with more access to spectrum. 

As a result, the wireless industry has poured more than $100 billion into acquiring these airwave licenses in recent years. The FCC is planning for even more auctions in the future.

But as the spectrum is repurposed, there have been disputes over interference issues. Late last year, the Federal Aviation Administration raised concerns that the use of C-band spectrum, which had been auctioned off in 2020 would interfere with cockpit safety equipment in aircraft. The result was a stand-off between the FAA, aviation industry and wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon, which had planned to begin using the spectrum they had purchased to deploy 5G service. 

Earlier this month, AT&T and Verizon agreed to postpone the launch of their 5G services using C-band spectrum until Jan. 19.



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