12 GHz band: ‘Our best engineers’ are on it, says FCC's Rosenworcel

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel’s response to a question about the 12 GHz band during an FCC oversight committee hearing Thursday is giving hope to the 5G for 12 GHz Coalition.

The 5G for 12 GHz Coalition, which includes MVDDS licensees Dish Network and RS Access, has been urging the commission to change the rules for the 12 GHz band so it can be used for two-way 5G communications. Engineering studies showing the band could be safely used by both satellite and 5G service providers were submitted to the FCC for its Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) to evaluate.

At Thursday’s House Communications and Technology subcommittee hearing, all four FCC commissioners were present. Rosenworcel, a Democrat, made her first appearance before the committee in her role as FCC chairwoman. The two Republican commissioners, Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington, also attended in person, with Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat, appearing  remotely due to a sick child.

Asked about the status of the 12 GHz technical review at the commission, Rosenworcel said it’s one of the most complex dockets at the commission.

A Dish-led petition to update the rules for the band dates back to 2016, so it’s had a lot of time to stew. Since then, SpaceX’s interest in the 12 GHz band has increased, to the point where it appears the biggest and most vocal opponent to Dish’s plan.

In her answer, Rosenworcel noted that the 12 GHz band historically hosted fixed satellite systems. It also has had direct broadcast satellite and multi-channel video data distribution systems. “Now we might want to add mobile broadband to the mix,” she said.

“As you might imagine, that's going to take a lot of technical work to make sure that the airwaves can accommodate all those different uses without harmful interference,” she said, adding that some of the data in the record points to different interference-to-noise ratios that are copied from the International Telecommunications Union that are 30 years old.

“We have satellite policies we're going to have to update,” she said. “And once we identify harmful interference, we'll have to model what it looks like and try to come up with standards for where satellite terminals can be compared to 5G systems. These issues, to be candid, will take time, but they take time because they're really important and we need to do them well.”

In a separate follow-up question, Rep. Darren Soto, R-Florida, referenced the central Florida presence of NASA, SpaceX and others, as well as the connectivity coming from StarLink across the U.S.

“Unfortunately, sometimes we see speculators that are proposing to repurpose the 12 GHz spectrum that these satellite operators use,” Soto said. “It would be great to hear of your continued support for this critical spectrum use by satellite systems to help with the very isolated areas in both Florida and in areas across the world.”

Rosenworcel said the FCC wants to make sure that satellites continue to be a viable industry.

“This is a complex proceeding, as complex as any proceeding before the agency,” she said. “We are combing through engineering documents. We are trying to identify if having these services coexist is viable, what interference might be harmful, how should we model it. That work is all underway. I can assure you that we have our best engineers assessing this right now and we can continue to keep you updated as we proceed.”

V. Noah Campbell, founder and CEO of RS Access, told Fierce on Thursday that he’s encouraged by the FCC chairwoman’s comments. His firm backs studies submitted into the FCC’s record that show both satellite and 5G services can co-exist in the 12 GHz band without harmful interference.

“I think it’s excellent,” he said. “We’re totally confident in the analysis that we put in the record. We appreciate the work the OET is doing.”

He wasn’t surprised that the 12 GHz band came up during the hearing, which lasted over three hours. It’s slim pickings when it comes to any new spectrum being considered for 5G and the 12 GHz band is ripe for action. The thinking is, if the FCC were to act on the 12 GHz band – one of the few spectrum options it has available right now – it will be a feather in the cap of this commission.   

RS Access holds the second largest amount of MVDDS spectrum after Dish, which is why they want to see that spectrum re-assigned for 5G. (If that means RS Access would sell its 12 GHz spectrum rights to the carrier with the highest bid on the secondary market, he’s not saying.)

Campbell said it’s too early to say how RS Access will use the spectrum in the future. “We’re looking for guidance from the commission and from the decision-makers as to what we’re going to be able to use these frequencies for,” he said. “We don’t know what we can use it for.”

Another encouraging sign for the 5G for 12 GHz Coalition is its growing membership, which was about 23 entities a year ago; it's now at about 35. Last week, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society joined the 5G for 12 GHz Coalition, saying that as soon as the FCC gives the green light, wireless companies can immediately begin to make use of the spectrum for new and competitive 5G services.

So far, it’s unclear when the FCC might move forward on the band.

In a note for investors last weekend, New Street Research analyst Blair Levin said a win at 12 Ghz would be particularly meaningful for Dish, providing it a lot more spectrum that Dish could incorporate into its 5G buildout.

Levin also noted that the FCC doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to increasing the available spectrum for 5G. The infrastructure bill funds a study of how to allocate the 3.1-3.45 GHz band but says the FCC can’t auction any part of the band any earlier than November 30, 2024. “Thus, 12 GHz is one of the few bands the first term Biden FCC can use to increase 5G spectrum availability,” Levin wrote.