FCC moves ahead on 3.7-4.2 GHz order seeking more details

The FCC unanimously voted today to seek further comment on ways to free up spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, also called the C-Band, for 5G.

The Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that the commission adopted identifies new opportunities for flexible use in up to 500 megahertz of midband spectrum between 3.7 and 4.2 GHz. The commission is also seeking more details on the current satellite users in the band.

The 3.7-4.2 GHz band is currently used by satellite companies that in turn serve entities like NPR and Comcast in distributing programming to millions of Americans. One of the options for clearing the spectrum is a proposal by satellite companies that would have them forming a consortium to work with 5G operators to free up spectrum, but the order adopted today will look at multiple strategies for clearing the spectrum.  

True to character, Chairman Ajit Pai referenced the 1975 summer blockbuster “Jaws” in his prepared comments, where one of the characters says they’re going to "need a bigger boat." That's what he said the FCC is figuratively providing today by seeking ways to unleash more spectrum.

To help figure out the way forward, the FCC is seeking comment on a variety of proposals, including on ways to open some or all of the C-Band for terrestrial wireless use and for reallocating current users, with the intent of unleashing a lot more spectrum.

RELATED: Google, Intelsat spar over C-Band

Commissioner Brendan Carr noted that the C-Band encompasses 500 MHz of midband spectrum that some believe is prime for 5G deployment and flagged the notice’s section on the market-based mechanism for clearing the spectrum. That option would authorize incumbents to clear on a voluntary basis all or nearly all of the band and allow them to engage in secondary market transactions.

“In my view, this could provide the quickest path to clearing the spectrum, and it could do so without the inevitable issues that arrive when the commission begins imposing mandates and repurposing the spectrum itself,” he said.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who has spent considerable time on the midband issues, said it became clear to him more than two years ago that a global shift in spectrum had occurred and the world was eyeing midband spectrum for 5G. Thus, it became vital for the U.S. to have a serious midband play to complement the low and high-band spectrum it was making available.

RELATED: FCC’s O’Rielly suggests freeing up 200-300 megahertz of C-Band spectrum

The C-Band provides a wide swath of spectrum and it just so happens that some of current users—the satellite providers—are open to reducing their spectrum footprint.

“It is rare that you see the stars align” to be able to execute a large change in spectrum policy like this, he said.

To execute this “win-win” scenario, the reallocation needs to happen fairly quickly—not in five or 10 years—and the FCC must release a significant amount of spectrum—far more than the 100 MHz originally proposed by the resident satellite players, he said. In particular, O’Rielly has advocated for at least 200 or 300 megahertz to be made available with a serious review to release even more.

Any reallocation also much protect the incumbents; not all must be accommodated on C-Band spectrum but their services cannot be disrupted, he said. 

And while O’Rielly said he had some problems with parts of the item, he’s pleased about the chairman’s commitment to bring a 6 GHz item to the commission this fall. Being next to the 5 GHz band, it provides the next-best opportunity other than 5.9 GHz to expand Wi-Fi and other unlicensed operations. O’Rielly previously suggested the 6 GHz item could be considered this summer alongside the midband order.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel stressed that the U.S. is not in the lead when it comes to making midband spectrum available for 5G. She ticked off activities in South Korea, China, the U.K. and elsewhere where they are taking steps to make midband spectrum available for 5G. She noted that the U.S. is still “inexplicably mired” in the FCC’s bureaucracy when it comes to the 3.5 GHz band, which has been ready to go for several years but remains in limbo while the FCC considers proposed changes to rules adopted in 2015.

She also said the proposal by satellite operators to repurpose the airwaves in an expedited fashion raises challenging questions, including the fact that the frequencies are now used by TV and radio broadcasters and cable operators to deliver programming to more than 100 million American households.

Besides the market-based approach to clearing spectrum, the notice seeks comment on possible auctions and other mechanisms for freeing up the C-Band.