4.9 GHz plan faces opposition from public safety

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wants to make more efficient use of the 4.9 GHz band, of which 50 megahertz was designated for public safety use back in 2002. But he’s facing opposition from a slew of public safety organizations.

The item, which is on the FCC’s open meeting agenda for September 30, would give states the right to lease 4.9 GHz spectrum to commercial entities, electric utilities and others. According to the chairman, only about 3.5% of potential licensees – or less than 1 out of 25 – are actually using the 4.9 GHz spectrum due to the licensing structure.

Under his plan, public safety incumbent operations would be protected while providing states the ability to use the spectrum to boost wireless broadband, improve critical infrastructure monitoring, or facilitate new public safety use cases that meet the distinctive challenges and geographies of each state. He’s also proposing a new state-based licensing regime for public safety operations in the 4.9 GHz band.

Few, if any, incumbents want anybody messing with their spectrum, and in this case, public safety agencies, from APCO International to the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), are urging the FCC to back off.

“Our greatest concern is that the states do not have expertise in auctioning and sub-licensing spectrum,” the IAFC told the commission (PDF). “We are concerned that new users on the network may interfere with the operations of existing incumbent public safety agencies.”

According to APCO and a number of other organizations that want the item removed from the September agenda, the public safety community has asked the commission for more than a decade for changes to the 4.9 GHz band to help public safety make more effective use of it.

“The Commission should not put state governments in a position to dictate spectrum policy and effectively override investments made by public safety agencies at county and local levels,” they told the FCC in a September 21 filing (PDF). “It’s one thing for the Commission to permit state governments to cash a check at the expense of public safety communications, but it’s an entirely different matter to permit state governments to dictate this to county and local public safety entities.”

The timing of the change would be particularly problematic given the multiple national and regional emergencies that first responders and 911 professional are facing, they say. The COVID-19 pandemic, extraordinary wildfires, a stream of destructive hurricanes and civil protests are causing untold injury and death. “This would compound threats to public safety’s use of other spectrum – the T-band and 6 GHz. Now is especially not the time to pull the needed 4.9 GHz band out of the hands of public safety officials.” The signatories include associations representing sheriffs, police and fire chiefs and emergency medical technicians.

RELATED: Utilities push for expanded access in 4.9 GHz band

At its meeting next week, the FCC will consider a Sixth Report and Order on the topic, indicating it’s been around the block more than a few years. Back in 2012, one of the issues it was considering was whether the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) should be eligible for a 4.9 GHz band license.

AT&T, which won the FirstNet contract, opposes the FCC’s current draft order, and public safety advocates note that the 4.9 GHz band represents the only mid-band spectrum available and dedicated to public safety operations, which could serve them well in migrating to 5G.

WISPA support for ‘innovative policy’

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), which represents smaller ISPs across the country, issued a statement this week in support of the FCC’s efforts in the 4.9 GHz band.

“Despite many attempts to maximize use of the band, it remains largely unused outside of metropolitan areas,” said WISPA VP of Policy Louis Peraertz in a statement. “WISPA commends Chairman Ajit Pai for proposing an innovative policy to open up the 4.9 GHz band for other users.

“This leasing model will streamline use of the vastly underutilized band without compromising the ability of public safety users to access the spectrum. Given its proximity to the 5 GHz U-NII bands, we expect manufacturers can develop equipment and technology quickly, for the benefit of public safety users as well as innovators and entrepreneurs leasing the spectrum,” Peraertz said. “Consumers will reap enormous benefits, too, especially those who rely on fixed wireless networks to access the Internet in rural and urban areas of America.”