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O'Rielly Sees Need for Speed in C-Band Repurposing

FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly said this week that getting money to the Treasury is definitely a possibility, it the FCC's priority in repurposing C-Band satellite spectrum is to get it into the hands of terrestrial 5G innovators ASAP.

O'Rielly made that point in a speech to the Mobile World Congress Americas in Los Angeles.

He said that while it was possible that an auction of the spectrum can generate money for the treasury, that was not his priority. "To be clear, our primary objective should be to ensure that the spectrum gets into the hands of those who can put it to use as quickly as possible in order to compete not just domestically but internationally as well."

Related: Eutelsat Says Any C-Band Treasury Payment Should Be Limited

Satellite operators have proposed overseeing a market-based sale of spectrum to 5G carriers, saying that would get the spectrum to carriers much more quickly than a years-long FCC auction process.

FCC chair Ajit Pai has told Congress he expects to have a final item on freeing up C-Band spectrum (3.7 to 4.2 GHz) by year's end and O'Rielly seconded that, saying "the Commission is close to completing its review."

Related: FCC's Carr on 5G: Americans 'Ticked Off' By Lack of Choice in Home Broadband

The FCC is looking to free up as much of the spectrum as it can--likely at least 300 MHz of the available 500 MHz, which O'Reilly favors--without hurting the broadcasters and cable operators whose network programming and field-to-studio programming is delivered via that band. Broadcasters have been reluctant to open the repurposing floodgates, focusing on protecting their service from interference. Cable operators, who are eyeing 5G spectrum along with carriers, have argued that perhaps all the spectrum can be repurposed for 5G, with their network programming delivery migrated to fiber. Broadcasters counter that leaves their must-have programming at the mercy of any errant slip of the backhoe.

There are also differing opinions on whether private market sales will be faster--say, 18 months rather than half a decade--because of legal questions raised about whether the FCC is authorized to allow those side deals, and the resulting litigation that will likely ensue if the FCC does not hold an auction.

Related: Affils Give FCC Earful on C-Band

O'Rielly said the FCC's item needs to provide for "a sufficient amount of spectrum, around 300 megahertz makes the most sense; a fair and transparent assignment process, which I believe can be accomplished quickly; and safeguards to ensure that current spectrum users – mostly broadcasters and cable providers – continue to get service."