FCC Releases NOI to Explore Modifying 900 MHz Band Use

The FCC today released a notice of inquiry that seeks comments on whether it should, among other things, take steps to facilitate use of the 900 megahertz band for broadband services. Specifically, it seeks comments on petitions for rulemaking filed jointly by pdvWireless, Inc., and the Enterprise Wireless Alliance and by M2M Spectrum Networks LLC.

“In this Notice of Inquiry (NOI), we begin a proceeding to examine whether any rule changes may be appropriate to increase access to spectrum, improve spectrum efficiency, and expand flexibility in the 896-901/935-940 MHz band (900 MHz band) for next generation technologies and services,” the FCC said in the item. “This band was designated in 1986 for narrowband private land mobile radio (PLMR) communications by Business/Industrial/Land Transportation (B/ILT) licensees and Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) providers, with systems in place today. Consistent with our recent efforts to promote flexibility, efficiency, and access in the use of other spectrum bands, we seek comment on the potential for modification to the operational rules and band configuration for the 900 MHz band, which has undergone few changes since 1986, in light of continuing evolutions in technology and the marketplace. In that context, we invite commenters to provide economic and technical data in order to better understand current and future uses and needs in the band.”

Comments are due Sept. 18 and replies Oct. 18 in WT docket 17-200. The item was originally circulated in September 2016 (TR Daily, Sept. 16, 2016), but the changeover in leadership in January helped delay action on it.

The pdvWireless/EWA petition asked the FCC to realign the 900 MHz band to enable a private enterprise broadband network (TR Daily, Nov. 18, 2014). The action would allow pdvWireless, which acquired Sprint Corp.’s 900 MHz band frequencies, to deploy a broadband network in a portion of that spectrum, giving priority access to utilities and other critical infrastructure entities. Many incumbent utilities have expressed concerns about the plan, including the possibility for disruption and interference.

M2M filed a petition for rulemaking “requesting that the Commission amend the rules to permit SMR systems on 900 MHz B/ILT channels, provided that the end-users are B/ILT-eligible” (TR Daily, Aug. 21, 2015), the NOI noted. “M2M states that many 900 MHz licensees do not have significant broadband needs and instead rely heavily on the availability of narrowband channels. It argues that its proposed amendment would be consistent with the Commission’s intent to increase operational flexibility in the 900 MHz band, and thereby allow businesses to better fulfill their communication needs.”

That petition has also drawn significant opposition, including from parties that say it would decrease the availability of B/ILT spectrum for traditional users.

Among other things, the FCC said it wants input on “whether any changes to improve the technical and operational flexibility and efficiency of the 900 MHz band are appropriate; 900 MHz band users’ current and future needs; whether those needs would be adequately fulfilled by alternate spectrum bands that have been allocated to or will be available to B/ILT users; and the financial and nonfinancial impacts of any changes on existing users’ operations. We specifically invite affected entities to provide up-to-date information, including economic data, to supplement the overview of the needs of various groups of B/ILT 900 MHz band users.”

“More generally, we seek comment on how to ensure that the 900 MHz band is put to its best and highest use for the American public,” the FCC added. “Commenters should discuss current and future needs, narrowband or broadband, of existing or new potential users and suggest how these needs can be met within the 900 MHz band. We seek additional comment on various specific options for the future use of the 900 MHz band that have been proposed in the records of the rulemaking petitions, but also invite commenters to present alternative approaches, including the costs and benefits of such options. We hope to develop a comprehensive record on which the Commission may, if the record warrants, propose further action to ensure that the 900 MHz band is an efficiently managed resource that meets current and future users’ needs.”

The NOI asks a plethora of questions about whether the FCC should (1) retain its existing band configuration but increase operational flexibility, (2) reconfigure the band to establish a broadband service, or (3) retain its existing licensing and eligibility rules.

Regarding the first option, it asked about “the effect that expanding commercial service on 900 MHz B/ILT channels would have on traditional B/ILT licensees. Would making SMR entities eligible for 900 MHz B/ILT spectrum force traditional B/ILT entities to purchase access to this spectrum from commercial providers? Would sufficient spectrum remain available for them to operate and expand their private internal communication systems? What about on other bands? Are the ongoing needs for narrowband communication sufficient to warrant less flexibility? We note that B/ILT eligibility is a relatively low barrier to gain access to the band and that, once authorized, a B/ILT eligible already has the ability to convert the authorization to commercial use. What impact has this had? Are there any other concerns about negative impacts of expanded commercial service on traditional B/ILT users?”

As to the broadband option, the FCC asked “whether or not the Commission should designate some portion of the 900 MHz band for broadband operations. What would be the operational impacts on current and future B/ILT users of designating a broadband segment and requiring incumbents to relocate to a narrowband segment, and how could those impacts be addressed? Would a broadband service in this band better serve the B/ILT users’ needs than the current configuration? Commenters addressing these issues should address the costs and benefits of designating some portion of this band for broadband operations, including providing specific data and information.”

The NOI asked about an ideal broadband band plan, how licenses should be assigned, the process for relocating incumbents, and technical rules.

Regarding the third option – retaining the existing rules – the NOI sought “comment on whether the 900 MHz band B/ILT channels should continue to be reserved for site-based B/ILT private internal communications to ensure that spectrum is available to B/ILT entities’ private internal communication needs. Would this best serve the public interest? What are the costs and benefits of such an approach? Do the present rules meet the current and future needs of B/ILT entities? Do they accommodate developing technologies, and ensure that the band is being used efficiently? If the Commission retains the current licensing and eligibility rules, should any of the rule changes discussed above to make the spectrum more useful in connection with increasing operational flexibility by permitting expanded commercial service be considered to make the spectrum more useful to B/ILT users? What amendments to the current technical rules would be desired? What new functionality would result? Are there other narrowband B/ILT services that could be accommodated, or other services, like IoT, that could be accommodated with minor adjustments to the rules? We request that commenters discuss the costs and benefits of the current licensing and eligibility rules, as well as any alternative approaches.”

In response to the release of the NOI today, pdvWireless declined to comment, other than to issue a news release saying that the NOI had been adopted, while an attorney for M2M also declined to comment. EWA did not immediately respond late this afternoon to requests for comment.- Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily