FCC gives WISPs access to 5.9 GHz for COVID-19 response

Wireless internet service providers (WISPs) in the nation’s less populated areas received permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use 45 MHz of 5.9 GHz spectrum to serve all of those customers who are now working and distance-learning from home.

The WISPS asked for special temporary authority (STA) to use the spectrum to meet a surge in demand for residential fixed broadband access during the coronavirus pandemic. The 33 WISPs receiving access to the spectrum deliver broadband service to thousands of Americans in 330 counties in 29 states.

Specifically, the U-NII-4 band (5850-5925 MHz) is shared with the Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) service and certain federal users. The WISPs told (PDF) the FCC that emergency use of 45 MHz in the 5850-5895 MHz band is the best solution for helping to meet the demand they’re seeing as a result of social distancing. Some WISPs are seeing bandwidth increase by as much as 40%.

WISPs already have access to FCC-certified 5 GHz equipment that can be easily and quickly returned via a software update to operate in this band, so it sounds like it won’t be a big effort to put it to use quickly. The STA lasts for 60 days.

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According to WISPA CEO Claude Aiken, the pandemic’s shut-in orders have really increased demand on the networks serving rural America. With the temporary authority to use 45 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band, WISPs are set to “quickly develop and deliver new high-speed broadband offerings for their rural customers who could really use it,” he said in a statement.

“Our members are seeing over a 35% bump in traffic in peak hours, with 90% of them getting customer requests to add more speed to their plans,” Aiken stated. “The more capacity they can quickly put into service, the more fortified their communities are against the challenges of COVID-19.”

During a Senate Financial Services Subcommittee hearing earlier this month, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said the FCC, in response to COVID-19, should consider expediting waivers and experimental licenses that will expand network capabilities and create additional Wi-Fi capacity by temporarily authorizing use of the 5.9 GHz band.

In making the announcement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recognized the companies, as well as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for its cooperation and the FCC’s own staff for processing the applications in a swift manner.

The FCC’s staff is working outside its headquarters since it was closed earlier this month except for special circumstances. The FCC’s next open meeting, set for Tuesday, will be in an electronic format with a live feed from the FCC’s web page and YouTube channel.