FCC votes to adopt new 3.5 GHz spectrum sharing plan for 'Innovation Band'

The FCC voted today to adopt new spectrum sharing tools and policies to make 150 MHz of spectrum available for mobile broadband and other commercial uses. The radio waves sit in the 3.5 GHz band that previously was locked up by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

The band is seen as ideal for small cells, but FCC staff also has said it's possible that new, as-yet-unforeseen uses for the band will emerge; hence, it's referred to as the "innovation band." The FCC has been working on rules to open the band for more than two years.

The new spectrum sharing techniques include a three-tiered approach spanning 3550 MHz to 3700 MHz, for a service dubbed the "Citizens Broadband Radio Service." The FCC says use of advanced spectrum sharing technology will allow wireless broadband systems to share spectrum with military radars and other incumbent systems while protecting federal missions.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler acknowledged that many commenters in the agency's proceeding on 3.5 GHz were concerned about LTE Assisted Access (LAA) technology, which is now in the 3GPP standards-setting process. Wi-Fi providers are concerned cellular operators will deploy the technology in unlicensed bands and negatively affect Wi-Fi users. AT&T, for one, has said it won't deploy LAA until it is sure it won't interfere with Wi-Fi. T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), on the other hand, have said they plan to pursue and deploy LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) and LAA.

Wheeler said the FCC will release within the next 30 days a public notice allowing interested parties to inform the FCC and each other about what is going on in the LAA standards-making process. In a press conference after the meeting, Wheeler underlined that it's not a standard yet, but the FCC wants to stay on top of how LAA relates to the 3.5 GHz band and other spectrum bands.

In her comments before the full commission vote, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn noted her concerns about LAA and pointed out the problems that LAA might cause for Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi Alliance, for one, had submitted comments urging the commission to explore whether technologies that manage unlicensed equipment in the 3.5 GHz band from a licensed network will ensure that all unlicensed devices operating in the band have fair and reasonable access to 3.5 GHz spectrum, whether or not the operator also holds spectrum for exclusive use.

Commissioner Ajit Pai said the order leaves many important details and complex questions to be resolved, including whether technologies will develop that can "manage the complicated and dynamic interference scenarios that will result from our approach. It therefore remains to be seen whether we can turn today's spectrum theory into a working reality," he said. "Moreover, exclusion zones still cover about 40 percent of the U.S. population, and we leave the door open for the introduction of new federal uses across the country, neither of which is ideal."

Pai added, however, that he is pleased with the "substantial progress" that's been made in the proceeding, including the assurance that existing wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) can continue to deploy broadband to rural consumers rather than freezing them out during the transition to a new 3.5 GHz regime.

Commissioner Michael O'Reilly said he thinks it's premature to call the structure set up in today's order a new paradigm; he said it's likely just one more way among existing structures that can be used in the more difficult situations where government users "absolutely cannot move." He also said the commission needs to do more to facilitate the siting of small cell systems. "To ensure that the new services flowing from this 3.5 GHz spectrum reaches the hands of American consumers as quickly as possible, we must remove the burdensome roadblocks preventing installation of small cells, whether due to hyper-regulatory state, environmental or historical review," he said. "Small cell infrastructure deserves the commission's immediate attention."

The FCC's 3.5 GHz Report and Order describes a three-tiered sharing paradigm, whereby the lowest tier, dubbed General Authorized Access (GAA), is open to anyone with an FCC-certified device. At that level, it will cost nothing for commercial broadband users to access. At the Priority Access License (PAL) tier, users of the band can acquire--via auction--targeted, short-term licenses that provide interference protection from GAA users. At the top of the hierarchy are incumbent federal and commercial radar, satellite and other users that receive protection from all Citizen Broadband Service users.

Mostly, the FCC commissioners applauded the new spectrum sharing paradigm, acknowledging that the industry and government need to find more creative ways to use the finite resource that is spectrum. For example, exclusion zones where the military sets aside spectrum along the nation's coastlines are 77 percent smaller than they were in previous plans.

Several wireless infrastructure groups applauded the commission's order. "PCIA is pleased that the FCC has approved a forward-thinking order that offers new opportunities to expand wireless capacity and coverage, which will help American consumers get better connected," said Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of PCIA, in a statement. "While the FCC and the Administration must remain vigilant in seeking to clear more licensed spectrum under terms and lengths that spur investment, the FCC has provided a path to innovation in the 3.5 GHz band that will help ease the wireless data crunch, which will stimulate U.S. jobs and growth. The FCC's focus on small wireless communications facilities such as small cells and DAS demonstrates its clear vision for our evolving heterogeneous networks."

"Access to the 3.5 GHz band will enable new investment in mobile broadband, support innovation, and add substantial value for consumers and the economy," added the WifiForward group in a statement.

AT&T (NYSE: T) said it, too, applauds the FCC for adopting the 3.5 GHz order. "The Commission has taken an innovative approach in the band to facilitate spectrum sharing with incumbent government users," the operator said in a statement. "We look forward to the Second Further Notice as the Commission continues to explore how CBRS licensees will use this spectrum while sharing it in an opportunistic manner."

CTIA said it supports the FCC's "technology-neutral" approach. "Promising new technologies like LTE-U can play an important role in meeting consumer demand and making efficient use of valuable spectrum resources, and we are pleased the FCC adopted a technology neutral approach to its rules," the association said in its statement. "We are hopeful that when the FCC issues the Public Notice, it focuses on encouraging and promoting new uses of all bands, and efficient technologies, like LTE-U. As supporters of both Wi-Fi and LTE-U, we would be concerned with any steps the FCC would take that would interject a regulatory agency into standards settings process or attempt to influence that process."

However, CTIA sounded a note of caution. "While there is cause for optimism, it's still too early to tell whether this experiment will advance the important National Broadband Plan goal of providing 300 MHz of mobile broadband by 2015," the group said.

Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) CEO Scott Belcher said the spectrum crunch remains "very real" and the FCC's action represents "significant progress towards opening more spectrum for broadband. TIA has supported opening 3.5 GHz spectrum to broadband applications, including through the innovative use of new technologies such as small cells."

"In particular, TIA appreciates the FCC's tireless work in leading inter-agency efforts that have significantly reduced the size of the exclusion zones needed to protect federal incumbents in the band. Protecting services with superior spectrum rights (whether federal or commercial) against harmful interference remains very important in any spectrum sharing scenario," he said in a statement.

For more:
- see the FCC release
- see this PhoneScoop post
- see this Reuter's story
- see CTIA's blog
- see this AT&T blog

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