Following on its 2017 Notice of Inquiry and proposals by several entities going back at least five years, the FCC is poised to consider establishment of a wireless broadband service in the 900 MHz band (896-901/935-940 MHz), a major change from its historical use for narrowband private land mobile radio. At its March 15 Open Meeting, the FCC will consider a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) that would propose to allot 60% of the spectrum for wireless broadband licensees’ use, subject to commercial mobile rules, while preserving the remainder for continued narrowband operations . The comments on the NPRM, assuming it is adopted, will follow publication in the Federal Register, but the length of the comment periods is not set out in the draft.
Spectrum issues will once again take center stage at the FCC’s next open meeting scheduled for March 15, 2019. In a jam-packed agenda, the FCC plans to create a new category of experimental licenses for operations in spectrum above 95 GHz and potentially make more than 21 gigahertz available for unlicensed use in these so-called “spectrum horizons.” The agency also anticipates launching a rulemaking to permit broadband operations in a portion of the 900 MHz band that currently is used for two-way radio operations. In addition, the FCC expects to seek input on improving spectrum partitioning, disaggregation, and leasing arrangements. These spectrum proposals follow similar FCC actions designed to improve access to mid- and high-band frequencies, and could jump-start a new wave of innovation in next-generation, short-range technologies. Rounding out the major actions on the March agenda, the FCC plans to propose new wireless E911 location accuracy requirements and adopt service quality standards for intermediate service providers to improve rural call completion. If adopted, these proposals would impose significant obligations on carriers of all sizes and could potentially lead to serious fines in the event of noncompliance.
You will find more details on the significant March meeting items after the break:
The FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers proceeding, which is focused on making millimeter wave (“mmW”) spectrum available for flexible commercial mobile and fixed use, seems poised to move into a new phase even as the current phase is playing out. At its next meeting on December 12, 2018, the agency will vote on rule changes to facilitate a consolidated auction of spectrum in three spectrum ranges designated in 2016 and 2017 for flexible mobile and fixed use: the so-called Upper 37 GHz Band (37.6-38.6 GHz), the 39 GHz Band (38.6-40.0 GHz), and the 47 GHz Band (47.2-48.2 GHz). The FCC reportedly anticipates completing the auctions by the end of 2019, following the present auction of 28 GHz Band licenses (in 27.50-28.35 GHz) and the immediately-following auction of 24 GHz Band spectrum (in 24.25-24.45 and 24.75-25.25 GHz). A draft order has been made available to the public.
Of particular interest, the recently released draft item would lay the groundwork for the FCC’s second incentive auction (after the “inaugural” broadcast incentive auction completed in March 2017). A 39 GHz incentive auction would be structured quite differently than the 600 MHz broadcast incentive auction and attempt to reduce encumbrances in the 39 GHz Band by offering existing licensees the option to relinquish their licenses in exchange for payment. The FCC leadership appears bullish that the three auctions will draw significant interest from major service providers looking to support next-generation applications, including 5G wireless connectivity and the Internet of Things. Naturally, the first-in-time 24 and 28 GHz auctions may give some sense in advance of that interest. Through November 26, 2018, after 18 rounds, the 28 GHz Band auction had generated under $200 million in bids, albeit that spectrum is encumbered in many of the largest markets and in slightly more than 50% of all counties nationwide, including the most populous. The 24 GHz Band auction may prove a much better test of the appetite for participants to pay high prices for so-called “high band” spectrum.
The Federal Communications Commission’s (“FCC’s” or “Commission’s”) vote at its open meeting on October 23, 2018 on a Report and Order regarding the 3550-3700 MHz band (“3.5 GHz Band”) was split along party lines. This was hardly surprising given the criticism of the original order in 2015 by the then-Republican minority. As the now-Republican majority approved changes sought by the commercial mobile industry to the Priority Access License (“PAL”) rules, the lone Democratic Commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel dissented. Spectrum in and around the 3.5 GHz range is often touted as a lynchpin for initial 5G deployment internationally. The FCC, in response, seeks to promote greater investment in the band, by 5G proponents in particular by making PALs, which are to be auctioned, more attractive to commercial mobile service providers. The Order hopes to accomplish this by, among other things, increasing the size of PAL license areas from census tracts to counties, and extending license terms from three to ten years with a renewal expectancy. Commissioner Rosenworcel casts the action as a missed opportunity for spectrum policy that promotes innovation by favoring instead the same old, same old.
Although FCC actions concerning commercial mobile radio and unlicensed spectrum grab the big headlines, the Commission is addressing the needs of other radio users, too. On October 23, 2018, the Commissioners will vote on plans to make available additional channels for, and remove or reduce other requirements applicable to, private land mobile radio (“PLMR”) operations in the 806-824 MHz and 851-869 MHz bands (the “the 800 MHz Band”) and, to a lesser extent, the 450-470 MHz band. These frequencies are relied upon by, among other entities, public safety agencies, state/local governments, commercial security operations, utilities, and manufacturers for internal radio communications. While the FCC has worked for years on re-banding and other measures designed to increase utilization of fallow spectrum, it is now intent on addressing a number of rule changes to makes these frequencies more readily accessible by a larger number of PLMR entities. Many PLMR rules have remained unchanged since the 1990s or earlier, and eligible entities for years have sought changes to current regulations to foster greater deployment of new equipment and services. The FCC’s draft item made available to the public earlier this month would address a number of these pending proposals.
Responding to demands by high tech companies for more so-called “mid-band” unlicensed spectrum to augment that already made available in the 5 GHz Band, which accommodates Wi-Fi, Internet of Things (“IoT”), and other Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (“U-NII”) applications as well as Licensed Assisted Access and LTE-Unlicensed solutions, the FCC will vote on a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) at its October 26 Open Meeting to make up to 1200 megahertz of nearby spectrum available for similar purposes. The draft leaves no doubt that, to make the 5.925-7.125 GHz band (the “6 GHz Band”) available for unlicensed use, sophisticated sharing mechanisms will need to be in place. Various parts of this frequency range are already used by fixed, mobile, and satellite services, and the draft item commits to protecting these incumbents and allowing these services to grow while at the same time opening the band to increased numbers of unlicensed devices. To achieve this, the Commission is considering drawing upon its experience with white spaces and the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (at 3550-3750 MHz), and would seek comment on numerous subjects before adopting rules. The draft item would be a stepping stone to enabling unlicensed devices to operate with wider bandwidths and higher data rates, which the Commission hopes would set off a new wave of innovation in consumer devices complementing its recent moves to spur the rollout of next-generation 5G networks. The NPRM, when adopted, will be sure to generate a wave of comments from both equipment manufacturers and broadband providers hungry for more spectrum as well as incumbent public safety organizations, utilities, satellite companies, and various other fixed and mobile services licensees seeking to protect and hoping to expand their existing operations in the 6 GHz Band, particularly as relocation options for other similar spectrum are increasingly scarce.
At its open meeting on September 26, 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) unanimously voted to adopt a Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to consolidate the agency’s rules governing three different types of mobile earth stations that operate in the Fixed Satellite Service (“FSS”) and communicate with geostationary satellites (“GSOs”). The consolidated rules will apply to all categories of Earth Stations in Motion (“ESIMs”). More importantly, the Commission extended the frequency bands on which ESIMs can operate on a primary basis into the conventional Ka-band. It also seeks comment in the FNPRM on expanding ESIMs operations into additional spectrum in the Ku-band and Ka-bands, potentially on a secondary or unprotected basis. However, the Commission left addressing ESIM operations with non-geostationary satellite orbit (“NGSO”) FSS systems for a separate NPRM.
At last week’s 5G summit at the White House, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his Facilitate America’s Superiority in 5G Technology (“5G FAST Plan”). The first of the three components of the Chairman’s announced strategy is making more spectrum available for 5G services by expanding licensed and unlicensed opportunities. To those ends, the FCC announced this week that the Commissioners will vote at its next meeting on October 23, 2018, on three items that would launch a proceeding to consider more unlicensed operations, make rule changes designed to increase the value of mid-band spectrum, and expand channels for land mobile radios primarily used by government agencies and businesses. Specifically, the FCC proposes allowing unlicensed devices to operate in the 5.925-7.125 GHz band (the “6 GHz Band”) to support next-generation unlicensed technologies, including Wi-Fi. The agency also anticipates recrafting the licensing rules related to the Citizens Broadband Radio Service in the 3.550-3.700 GHz band (the “3.5 GHz Band”), with an emphasis on the Priority Access Licenses (“PALs”) it will auction. In addition, the FCC expects to increase, through various methods, the number of channels available for private land mobile radio (“PLMR”) operations in the 806-824 MHz and 851-869 MHz bands (the “the 800 MHz Band”).
Rounding out the major actions that will be voted on later this month at the Open Meeting, the FCC released a draft item that would offer regulatory relief to rate-of-return carriers providing Business Data Services (“BDS”). The proposed items are sure to impact every sector of the communications industry, from the largest wireless carriers to the smallest broadband providers and device manufacturers to business, industrial, and public safety radio users, while potentially transforming large-scale data transport services.
Our “Spectrum Update” podcast series takes a close look at hot topics and issues in wireless spectrum. In this episode, Partners Chip Yorkgitis and Josh Guyan discuss the hotly contested changes that are proposed and ongoing in the spectrum between 3.1 and 4.2 GHz in the U.S. There appear to be potential opportunities for commercial mobile to share these bands with current uses, but there are also calls for greater use of the bands for unlicensed and fixed wireless services. In many countries in Europe and Asia, in particular, these bands have been identified for 5G use already and the FCC is considering doing the same in the U.S. Click here to listen to this episode and click here to subscribe on iTunes.
Two years after the first Spectrum Frontiers report and order, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) is completing the final set of preliminaries before commencing the first mmW auction. With the release of a draft Public Notice (“Notice”) on July 12, 2018, the Commission gave a sneak preview of the application and bidding procedures for upper microwave flexible use service (“UMFUS”) licenses in the 28 GHz and 24 GHz band. The Commission will vote on these procedures at its next Open Meeting, scheduled for August 2, 2018. The auction will be an important milestone in the Commission’s efforts to make high band spectrum available for next-generation applications, including 5G wireless connectivity.