In the big picture, today’s FCC proposal to share spectrum in the 1675-1680 MHz band between current federal government users and commercial 5G carriers was a routine action. But in the current state of regulatory debate, a routine measure can lead to extended discussion on whether the government is doing enough to secure mid-band spectrum to meet international 5G competition.
“Recent commercial launches of 5G service in the United States are confirming what we already know. That commercializing millimeter wave is not easy given its propagation challenges. The network densification these airwaves require is costly and, in fact, may never reach rural America,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
The Commission during today’s monthly agenda meeting unanimously adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to authorize sharing of 1675-1680 MHz for commercial mobile use. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) currently uses the band to collect weather data. An auction for use of the spectrum would happen at some future point after the FCC sets auction rules and after NOAA contributes a report on spectrum sharing feasibility.
In other words, nobody will be using 1675-1680 MHz for commercial proposes for a long time, but at least the process has begun rolling.
“For four years under the prior administration the president's budget proposed that the FCC take action to make mid-band spectrum, specifically spectrum in the 1675-1680 MHz band, available for flexible use, subject to sharing arrangements with federal weather satellites,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in defense of today’s proposal. “But nothing happened. It was all talk and no action. Under this administration things have changed.”
Rosenworcel, while voting in favor of the item, complained that 5 MHz represents a “sliver” of spectrum compared to the amount of mid-band spectrum other countries have set aside for 5G. The FCC has “flooded private markets with high-band airwaves” above 24 GHz, while the rest of the world is allocating lower bands with better propagation characteristics. She listed several countries pursuing a mid-band 5G strategy while the FCC has yet to authorize any mid-band spectrum. “China has already allocated 300 MHz of mid-band spectrum for next-generation mobile use,” she said.
The Commission has begun considering several potential mid-band possibilities. The complication is that, like 1675-1680 MHz, these bands have been occupied for years by other, well-established licensees.
“Today we continue [a] two-and-a-half-year effort to free up prime mid-band spectrum. The 5 MHz before us is a small sliver of spectrum, to be sure, but if it is combined with adjacent and nearby channels we could have a 40 MHz block that offers high throughput at great distance and those are excellent characteristics for next-gen mobile broadband,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr.
In the meantime, Carr praised early 5G deployments in the United States. “We now have the world’s largest 5G buildout,” he said. “Now, that may not sit well with the naysayers who are convinced we’re losing to China, but the fact is that the U.S. will have 92 5G builds by year's end while China has announced plans for zero. On spectrum, the race to 5G can only be won with an all-of-the-above approach. High, mid and low-band spectrum.”