Some have criticized the FCC’s 5G preparation for placing too much emphasis on high-band spectrum above 24 GHz, where wide channels transmit wireless data at very fast speeds and low latency. But the short distances those signals travel mean they will have limited value, especially rural areas. So with the recent ending of the first two high-band auctions and many months to wait for the next one, there is a noticeable shift of attention to mid-band 5G spectrum initiatives.
The agenda for the Commission’s July 10 open monthly meeting includes a vote aimed at hastening 2.4 GHz licenses into 5G operation. “This is the single largest band of contiguous spectrum below 3 GHz [2496 to 2690 MHz]. But much of this public resource has been unused for decades,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a blog post. “That’s partly because the technology that policymakers conceived many years ago for this band hasn’t materialized as some thought, and partly because arcane rules hampered providers from putting the spectrum to its highest-valued use.”
Much of the spectrum affected by the order is part of the Educational Broadband Service (EBS), a block of spectrum with use limited to eligible educational institutions. Before the EBS, that spectrum had been set aside for closed-circuit educational television. Although some educational groups object to the characterization, the FCC says 2.5 MHz channels have been underutilized by both EBS and the earlier video users. The order would open eligibility to commercial users and remove restrictions on the licenses to match the user flexibility of other mid-band blocks.
“Too much of this spectrum, which is prime spectrum for next generation mobile operations, including 5G, has lain fallow for more than 20 years. That ends today,” the FCC says in the introduction to a draft of the 2.5 GHz order.
Other developments in recent days suggest heightened activity around mid-band frequencies:
- There is considerable opposition to the proposed Sprint/T-Mobile mobile phone network merger, including by many rural groups. But indications are that the long-debated deal is close to completion and regulatory approval. If that is so, the companies say their joining will open large amounts of mid-band spectrum. “Right now, Sprint has tremendous mid-band spectrum resources. But the record before the FCC makes clear that the company standing alone does not have the capacity to deploy 5G in this spectrum throughout large parts of rural America,” Pai said in a June 21 speech to the New York State Wireless Association. He said that the companies “have committed to the FCC that they will deploy mid-band 5G to 88 percent of our nation’s population, including two-third of rural Americans. And there would be significant financial penalties if these commitments were not met.”
- NRTC strongly believes that mid-band frequencies in the 3.5 GHz Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) could not only be useful for 5G, but also for last-mile home broadband service to many rural homes when connected to a backbone fiber network. The band represents “a good trade-off between coverage and capacity,” wireless equipment company Ericsson stated in a white paper distributed by NRTC and NRECA earlier this year. This month, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced the ‘‘Supplementing the Pipeline for Efficient Control of The Resources for Users Making New Opportunities for Wireless [SPECTRUM NOW ] Act.’’ One provision of the bill would transfer 100 MHz of government-controlled 3.5 GHz spectrum (3450-3550 MHz) to commercial use. That block is adjacent to CBRS and could augment CBRS 5G or fixed wireless deployments.
- In May, the Commission proposed allowing commercial users to share the 1675-1680 MHz band with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The FCC received public comments on the proposal this week. Although the band only covers 5 MHz, it is low in the spectrum where it could transmit data, such as 5G internet of things data, over long distances. “As the wireless industry moves from connecting everyone to connecting everything, substantially more spectrum is necessary to meet growing demand. Flexible rights licensing policies have long been the cornerstone of the United States’ successful wireless strategy, fostering hundreds of billions of dollars in investment and innovation,” CTIA – The Wireless Association said in its comments.