Editor's Corner—U.S. risks ceding leadership if it remains passive about 95 GHz+

Monica Alleven editor's corner

While everyone is fired up on all sides about net neutrality and what FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is going to do about it, there’s another area under the FCC’s purview that just might get some movement under the new regime—one that should be far less controversial: spectrum at 95 GHz and above.

Now, it might sound pie-in-the-sky and a little bit “out there,” but a lot of people were skeptical about spectrum above 24 GHz—bands like 28 and 39 GHz, and now they’re being eyed with great interest. So don’t rule it out. After all, it’s not as if Chairman Pai hasn’t already thought about this spectrum.

During last year’s Spectrum Frontiers proceeding, Pai thanked his colleagues for agreeing to expand the Further Notice to include spectrum bands above 95 GHz. Noting that petitioners had asked the FCC to adopt service rules for bands above 95 GHz years ago, he said the Communications Act requires the FCC to “determine whether any new technology or service proposed in a petition or application is in the public interest within one year after such petition or application is filed.”

RELATED: FCC OKs sweeping Spectrum Frontiers rules to open up nearly 11 GHz of spectrum

His take: “Let’s get the spectrum out there and let the engineers help us decide.”

Perusing the comments in the FCC’s current Spectrum Frontiers docket, it’s clear that most of them are about concerns other than the 95 GHz+ spectrum bands. But you can find a few, and the commenters are convincing and passionate in their arguments. There’s a very real concern that other countries are far more aggressive in looking at ways to put this spectrum to use, and the U.S. needs to get on with it.

Earlier this month, industry consultant Michael Marcus, head of Marcus Spectrum Solutions and retired associate chief of the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology, gave a presentation (PDF) to FCC staffers about the importance of opening 95-475 GHz to commercial use and the technical and policy challenges.

Marcus, who worked on drafting rules for what eventually became spectrum for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in the 1980s, pointed out that R&D, often with national government support, is underway around the world for as high as 600 GHz. Europe, for example, it targeting this technology with the ETSI Industry Specification Group (ISG) on millimeter Wave Transmission (mWT) aiming to facilitate the use of higher frequency bands from 50 GHz up to 300 GHz.

Marcus isn’t alone in urging the U.S. to open up these super-high bands for commercial use. In comments submitted to the FCC last month, Brown University School of Engineering Professor Daniel Mittleman was joined by about 17 distinguished academics and professors from across the country who believe submillimeter and terahertz waves will play a crucial role in wireless communications.  

One solution that’s gaining favor among researchers, as well as groups such as the IEEE 802.15 WPAN Terahertz Interest Group (IGTHz), is the idea of developing new network capabilities, not to replace, but to supplement the existing cellular architecture, Mittleman said in the filing (PDF).

“These new capabilities would rely on a higher carrier frequency, with a shorter range but massive (by current standards) bandwidth for high-data-rate transmission,” he said. “Modeling indicates that various bands within the 100 GHz–1 THz range can be used in such applications, for backhaul between small cells, as well as for bursty download links. This range of frequencies is simply better suited to transporting large data than the already over-utilized frequencies in the 1-5 GHz range.”

Mittleman said he and his colleagues plan to create a university-based center devoted to terahertz science and technology in 2017, and he pointed to data from around the world showing the field of terahertz wireless communication research is active and growing, with rapid progress in the development of tools and systems that can solve real-world problems. Startlingly, however, essentially all of this research is happening outside the United States.

The worst thing the U.S. can do is to remain passive. Granted, a lot of other big issues are on the table for the FCC and some industry insiders might think they’re too busy with current spectrum to worry about what some consider to be terribly high (THz) frequencies. But it’s never too early to get things rolling on promising new technology—and the U.S. unquestionably needs to demonstrate leadership here and now. -Monica, @FierceWrlssTech