FCC Adopts NOI to Explore Mid-Band Spectrum

The FCC unanimously adopted a notice of inquiry today to explore mid-band spectrum between 3.7 gigahertz and 24 GHz for 5G services. The agency noted in a news release that it has already worked to make low-band spectrum below 3.7 GHz and high-band frequencies above 24 GHz available for wireless services.

“The NOI seeks comment on three specific mid-range bands (3.7-4.2 GHz, 5.925-6.425 GHz, and 6.425-7.125 GHz), and asks commenters to identify other non-federal mid-band frequencies that may be suitable for expanded flexible use,” the news release noted. The NOI suggests examining bands with exclusive non-federal allocations first, followed by bands with shared federal and non-federal allocations.

The release said that among the questions the item, which was adopted in GN docket 17-183, asks is (1) “[h]ow can the Commission best provide for flexible use of these bands to allow the introduction of additional fixed and mobile wireless services?” (2) “[h]ow can the Commission protect existing services against harmful interference?” (3) “[w]hat are the appropriate authorization mechanisms to maximize efficiency and promote flexible wireless use, including exclusive use, non-exclusive use, and unlicensed use?” (4) “[c]an service rules governing existing services be modified to make the bands more suitable for wireless use?” and (5) “[c]an existing rules be eliminated to reduce regulatory burdens and maximize efficient use?”

In particular, the 3.7-4.2 GHz C-band, which is primarily used by fixed-satellite service operators, has been in the sights of the wireless industry in the U.S. and internationally.

An ad hoc coalition is seeking access to the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for licensed mobile services and to the 6 GHz band for unlicensed usage (TR Daily, July 12). Commissioner Mike O’Rielly has expressed support for the proposal (TR Daily, July 10).

The ad hoc coalition’s members include Intel Corp., Verizon Communications, T-Mobile US, Inc., AT&T, Inc., Apple, Inc., Broadcom, Cisco Systems, Inc., CTIA, Comsearch, Ericsson, Google, Inc., Nokia, Samsung, the Information Technology Industry Council, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Meanwhile, a petition for rulemaking was filed in June by the Broadband Access Coalition asking the FCC to adopt regulations to create a new licensed, point-to-multipoint (P2MP) fixed wireless service in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band (TR Daily, June 21). The spectrum would be licensed through the FCC’s part 101 rules rather than be auctioned.

Among the members of that coalition are the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), Mimosa Networks, Inc., the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, Cincinnati Bell Inc., the Consumer Federation of America, the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, the American Library Association, JAB Wireless, Inc., d/b/a Rise Broadband, Telrad Networks, and Public Knowledge.

“We want to know how existing rules can be modified to promote additional access to these ‘middle’ bands.  We want to hear whether and how these bands can enable wireless broadband services and economic growth,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said today. “This Notice of Inquiry is just the beginning of our efforts to free up more mid-band spectrum for flexible wireless use.  We aim to close the mobile digital divide so that American consumers, especially in rural areas, won’t be eternally ‘stuck in the middle’ of dead or spotty wireless service zones.  And along the way, we hope to boost investment, job creation, and our nation’s global competitiveness.”

“We recognize that these mid-range spectrum bands support a wide variety of important uses, and accordingly ask commenters to provide detailed descriptions of how they plan to protect incumbents in the band. We also seek comment on steps that can or should be taken to mitigate interference between or among currently shared or adjacent allocations,” Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn noted.

“The unique properties of mid-band spectrum make it particularly attractive for deployment of next-generation wireless services,” she added. “And as we continue to explore and invent innovative and expedient wireless use cases to enhance and enrich our lives, from telehealth and distance learning to smart cities and IoT, we can clearly see that mid-band spectrum is not just important, but instrumental to unleashing the promise of 5G and beyond.”

“While our action in no way minimizes the importance of freeing up millimeter wave frequencies, it quickly became apparent at this year’s Mobile World Congress that many countries were focusing on mid-band spectrum for next-generation networks,” said Mr. O’Rielly. “For instance, Europe has identified 3.4 to 3.8 GHz as its primary band for early 5G development. Japan, Korea and China are also proponents of using frequencies in this range, with Japan possibly looking to extend 5G up to 4.2 GHz.”

“It is hard not to see that the mid bands targeted for 5G include frequencies that are also part of our 3.5 GHz band. As you know, we are in the process of revisiting the 3.5 GHz priority access licenses (PALs) to ensure they provide the appropriate vehicle for innovation and investment. Ultimately, the potential of combining PALs with the nearby 3.7 to 4.2 GHz band for mobile services may permit limitless opportunities for manufacturers and wireless providers, to the benefit of American consumers. And, the action we take today will facilitate the international harmonization of these bands and help the U.S. maintain its global leadership in wireless technologies,” Mr. O’Rielly added.

“Moreover, the notice also seeks comment on additional uses for the 6 GHz band, which is adjacent to the unlicensed 5 GHz band. It could provide, for example, a great opportunity to relieve the already congested 2.4 and 5 GHz unlicensed bands. The potential is even greater if the 5.9 GHz band is made available for unlicensed use,” the Commissioner added.

Mr. O’Rielly also urged the FCC to “expedite this proceeding. The consideration of the 3.7 to 4.2 and 6 GHz bands was likely ripe for a notice of proposed rulemaking rather than the notice of inquiry route, so I hope at a minimum we will push these bands forward as quickly as possible.”

The adoption of the NOI today generally drew praise from the terrestrial wireless industry, except for disappointment from some in the Broadband Access Coalition. However, the Satellite Industry Association highlighted the use of the C-band to deliver TV programming and cautioned the FCC not to take any actions that harm satellite use of the spectrum.

“We applaud the FCC for exploring how the wireless industry can use mid-band spectrum to meet growing consumer and business demand for mobile services,” said Scott Bergmann, vice president-regulatory affairs for CTIA. “Mid-band spectrum is key to unlocking the economic benefits that will flow from the next generation of wireless networks and today’s vote is an important step toward securing America’s leadership in 5G.”

“Competitive carriers need access to low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum resources to deploy next-generation services and technologies to their consumers, and this Notice of Inquiry marks a significant step toward achieving this laudable goal,” said Steve Berry, president and chief executive officer of the Competitive Carriers Association.

Verizon said it applauded the FCC’s action, adding that the 3.7-4.2 GHz band “is likely to be globally harmonized for next generation mobile service” and “is critical to ensure continuing US leadership in the global mobile ecosystem. We look forward to working with the FCC to move this important docket quickly to a notice of proposed rule-making and eventual rules to permit flexible use of the band.”

“It is great to see FCC progress toward making much needed mid-spectrum spectrum available.  Countries around the world are positioning spectrum in the 3.4-4.2 GHz range as a home for 5G and it’s important the US align with these global efforts to maintain our leadership position,” said Steve Sharkey, VP-government affairs/technology and engineering policy for T-Mobile.

“As one of the leading developers of 5G, Qualcomm is pleased to see the FCC yet again show strong, bipartisan leadership on 5G,” said Dean Brenner, senior vice president-spectrum strategy & tech policy for Qualcomm, Inc. “Today’s FCC action is another important step to ensure that a steady stream of spectrum of all types — low band, mid band, and high band, and licensed, unlicensed, and shared — is made available for 5G.  More spectrum of all types is essential to be able to deliver the tremendous innovations 5G will bring to almost every industry, touching on nearly every facet of American life.  We look forward to continuing our close collaboration with the FCC on spectrum and to working with our many partners in the industry to enable widespread commercial launches of 5G, beginning in 2019.”

“It’s only the beginning, but it is a great one,” said Peter Pitsch, executive director-federal relations and associate general counsel of Intel. “The Commissioners clearly ‘grok’ the case for making more mid-band frequencies available for wireless.  You’ve got to love Commissioner O’Rielly’s enthusiasm and his ability to cite chapter and verse on what other countries are doing in mid-band and why it is critical for the U.S. to expedite the rulemaking process.”

Charter Communications, Inc., also praised the adoption of the NOI. “The new inquiry will ask questions about how to use mid-band spectrum between 3.7 GHz and 24 GHz, and will be crucial for those of us working to develop wireless technology to efficiently and effectively deliver ultra-fast, low latency broadband for consumers,” Charter said. “The answers to these questions about how this spectrum will be used is critical for us at Charter, as we focus on innovation in the wireless space. Currently, we’re testing licensed small cell technology in the neighboring 3.5 GHz band which will put us on the path to provide 5G connectivity to our customers. We also anticipate these tests will help define how our network can be used to provide multi-gigabit wireless broadband services to businesses and homes located in harder to serve, more rural parts of the country.”

“As with any new proposals, challenges lie ahead,” said Mobile Future Chief Public Policy Adviser Robert McDowell. “By voting to explore mid-band uses, the Commission is forging new policy innovations that will then shape technological innovation. This vote marks a great day for our mobile future.”

But WISPA expressed disappointment at today’s FCC action. “In launching the NOI, the FCC appears to be advancing a broader and more time-consuming inquiry ahead of a June 21 petition filed by the new, diverse Broadband Access Coalition, which includes WISPA,” the group said. It added that “including the 3700-4200 MHz band in the NOI could lead to years of regulatory delay and uncertainty, preventing small, locally based, fixed wireless providers from going ahead with rural broadband deployments in that band.”

“WISPA believes that the fastest, simplest, most cost-effective way to finally close the rural broadband gap and bring affordable broadband to millions of Americans who lack access and choice is the approach we proposed in the Broadband Access Coalition’s petition for rulemaking on June 21,” said Mark Radabaugh, WISPA’s FCC Committee chair. “The NOI threatens to block that way forward.  We do look forward to participating in the proceeding and offering a way forward on both portions of the mid-band spectrum.” However, WISPA said it “is encouraged that the FCC is looking at the 5925-7125 MHz band, which offers opportunities for both indoor and outdoor use on a shared basis with incumbent users.”

“Underutilized satellite bands above 3.7 GHz have enormous potential to narrow the rural and small town digital divide,” said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at OTI. “Our Broadband Access Coalition looks forward to helping the FCC craft rules that allow for the immediate sharing of the 3.7 GHz band for high-capacity fixed wireless service where trenching fiber is too expensive, and to do so in a way that neither interferes with satellite incumbents nor forecloses the long-term potential for mobile use of all or part of the band.”

“As the FCC evaluates opportunities for additional uses of the mid-band spectrum, we strongly urge them to keep in mind the importance of these bands for the satellite industry and the vital services that impact virtually all Americans,” said SIA President Tom Stroup. “The overwhelming majority of the most popular programming networks distributed in the U.S. today rely on mid-band spectrum to reach all 114 million U.S. television households.”

He noted that the C-band is utilized to distribute TV content (1) “[f]rom program networks to each of the more than 600 affiliated FOX, ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS stations in all 200 local television markets;” and (2) “[f]rom network hubs to each of the 7,000 headends serving cable, direct-to-home satellite, and other paid-television networks[.]”

“In addition, the two largest telephony providers in Alaska use satellite communications in the 3700-4200 MHz band to provide internet access to remote villages, connectivity to rural health clinics from larger hospitals in urban areas, and communications services (VOIP/data/internet) to/from mining camps and oil and gas facilities. Mid-band frequencies are favored for these critical services because they are less susceptible to rain and snow fade than higher satellite frequencies,” Mr. Stroup added.

“SIA also would highlight the fact that the satellite industry already provides broadband services with coverage of all of the continental United States,” he said. “With the launch and deployment of two new multiple high throughput, high speed broadband satellites this year and with more underway, plus future plans for non-geostationary satellite (‘NGSO’) constellations for low-latency broadband, U.S. consumers will have ever-increasing choice in receiving next generation services, no matter where they are. Therefore, while SIA agrees with the overall goal to expand opportunities for next-generation services, the FCC should make sure it does not negatively impact the existing users of the bands noted.”- Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily