5G regulation and law in USA

Information current as of: 22 January 2020
This chapter was kindly submitted by Cooley LLP

What is the state of 5G deployment in your jurisdiction?

5G service is available in the United States from multiple carriers.  Rollout began in 2019, and all four national carriers offered some form of 5G service in at least some parts of the country by the end of the year.

There are no limitations or explicit barriers to any licensed wireless provider offering 5G service in the United States.  The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has been engaged in efforts to remove any remaining implicit barriers to deployment, including reforming its rules on antenna siting and deployment and making 5G-suitable spectrum available to carriers.

Which telcos and communications players are launching 5G services?

The four nationwide carriers in the U.S. have launched some form of 5G services, and the largest regional carriers have announced plans to make 5G service available.  As of 22 January 2020, this is the available information on deployment by significant U.S. wireless carriers:

National carriers:

AT&T offers two types of 5G in the U.S.:

  • 5G+ in parts of 35 U.S. cities:  AT&T’s 5G+ service provides higher speed and extra capacity to serve high traffic places like arenas and campuses.
  • 5G in 19 U.S. markets: AT&T’s 5G service uses low-band spectrum to offer broader coverage.  AT&T anticipates offering its 5G service nationwide in the first half of 2020.

Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband mobility service is now available in 31 U.S. cities.  This service also is available in 15 National Football League stadiums and John Glenn Columbus International Airport in Columbus, Ohio.  Verizon has announced that it will expand its 5G Ultra Wideband service to an additional four cities.

T-Mobile began providing 5G service in December 2019:

  • The current deployment covers over 99% of the U.S. population in more than 5,000 cities and towns across the U.S. using low-band 600 MHz spectrum.
  • If T-Mobile closes its acquisition of Sprint, T-Mobile has announced that it will use mid-band spectrum to improve its 5G service and millimetre wave spectrum for hotspot-like coverage in dense urban areas.

Sprint’s True Mobile 5G is available in parts of 9 major U.S. cities, using mid-band 2.5 GHz spectrum and deploying Massive MIMO radios on existing cell sites.

Regional carriers:

U.S. Cellular plans to roll out 5G in 2020, beginning in parts of Iowa and Wisconsin and to expand beyond those areas over time.  It will use low-band 600 MHz spectrum.

C Spire launched a 5G millimetre wave fixed wireless service in December 2018 near Gulfport, Mississippi.  C Spire also has been reported to be close to completing work for its 5G transition, but has stated that it is still in the early stages of 5G deployment.

Shentel has said it plans to deploy Massive MIMO technology and test 5G, but has not announced a date when 5G service will be available.

Cable operators, including Comcast, Charter, and Altice, are expected to provide 5G through resale of the service offered by national carriers.  Comcast and Charter have indicated that they intend to offer 5G via the Verizon network.

Prospective entrant:

Charlie Ergen, Chairman of DISH Network, testified at the T-Mobile/Sprint merger trial that DISH plans to deploy 10,000 sites for its 5G network by the end of 2022.  In connection with the T‑Mobile/Sprint merger, DISH has committed to serve 70 percent of the U.S. population with download speeds of 35 Mbps by 14 June 2023.  DISH currently does not provide wireless telephone service in the U.S.

Are there any public tenders for spectrum licenses?


What are the conditions?

The FCC generally licenses wireless spectrum via auction.  Any entity that is qualified to hold FCC licences is eligible to participate in the auctions, with some bidding credits available to qualified small businesses and rural providers.

Auction winners may be required to comply with limitations on total spectrum holdings.  These limitations vary depending on the spectrum bands involved in the auction.

As of 22 January 2020, the FCC currently is conducting two parallel auctions, one for spectrum in the 37 and 39 GHz bands and one for spectrum in the 47 GHz band.  These auctions began on 10 December 2019.

The FCC has one upcoming scheduled auction, for spectrum in the 3.55 to 3.70 GHz band.  This auction will begin on 25 June 2020.

The FCC has announced that it will auction spectrum in two other bands – 2.5 GHz and 3.7-4.2 GHz (also known as the C-band).  No date for either auction has been announced, but the Chairman of the FCC has indicated his intent to begin the C-band auction by the end of 2020.

What has the government said regarding spectrum licenses for commercial use?

In general, the FCC expects that wireless licences will be available for commercial use.  In recent years, all significant spectrum bands that have been made available for individual licensing (as opposed to bands designated for unlicensed operations) have been designated as “flexible use” spectrum, which can be used for any purpose so long as basic technical requirements are met.

Are the rules for 5G already drafted, and if so, what do they say?

The FCC has no 5G-specific rules and is not expected to adopt such rules.  It adopts technical rules governing power levels, interference and similar issues, but does not require the use of any particular protocol or standard on any frequency band that is available for commercial wireless use.  Companies, for example, could choose to operate networks offering broadband or a narrowband Internet of Things 5G service.

What are or would be the rules for granting competitors access to the new 5G networks, once they are deployed?

The FCC generally requires wireless carriers to provide roaming service to competing facilities-based carriers that operate compatible services.  There are no infrastructure or network sharing requirements under the FCC’s rules.

Robert McDowell