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

In one fell swoop, the FCC today put the U.S. in a 5G leadership position, voting 5-0 to approve its Spectrum Frontiers proceeding and make spectrum bands above 24 GHz available for 5G.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, noting his previous remarks on the proceeding, kept his remarks brief to avoid repeating himself. But he summed it up this way before the final vote: "This is a big day for our nation. This is a big day for this agency," he said.

"I do believe this is one of the, if not the most, important decision this agency will make this year. By becoming the first nation to identify high-band spectrum, the United States is ushering in the 5G era of high capacity, high-speed, low-latency wireless networks. By not getting involved in the technologies that will use the spectrum, we're turning loose the incredible innovators of this country," he said.

The new rules open up nearly 11 GHz of high-frequency spectrum for mobile and fixed wireless broadband – 3.85 GHz of licensed spectrum and 7 GHz of unlicensed spectrum. The rules create a new Upper Microwave Flexible Use service in the 28 GHz (27.5-28.35 GHz), 37 GHz (37-38.6 GHz) and 39 GHz (38.6-40 GHz) bands, and a new unlicensed band at 64-71 GHz. The FCC will continue to seek comment on bands above 95 GHz.

Top U.S. carriers reacted relatively positively to the vote. "Today, the FCC made a big down payment on the next generation of wireless innovation in the United States," said AT&T Vice President of Federal Regulatory Joan Marsh in a statement. "The Order, which is the result of months of advocacy, reflects regulatory compromises designed to permit new 5G services while accommodating the business plans of incumbent licensees. A careful review of the Order will be necessary to understand the balance struck between the competing interests, but we believe that the FCC's actions today will provide the clarity needed to move forward with confidence with 5G trials and development, ensuring continued U.S. leadership in wireless innovation and services."

Verizon offered similar praise for the move. "The FCC Order puts the U.S. on track to become the first country in the world to open up wide swaths of high-band spectrum, which is critical to ensure that the U.S. retains its global leadership in advanced wireless communications," said Kathleen Grillo, senior vice president and deputy general counsel for public policy and government affairs at Verizon.

Throughout the proceeding, satellite operators raised red flags, especially in their status in the 28 GHz band compared with terrestrial mobile, but the commission believes it achieved balance. When asked about the satellite players' objections in a press conference after the commission's meeting, Wheeler said there were dueling studies back and forth on the issues, which were insufficient to go one way or another. "We are going to continue the efforts to study the issue, and if it's necessary to re-examine it, we will."

While the satellite industry didn't get everything it wanted, neither did the terrestrial mobile industry. In announcing the final rules, FCC staff noted that the commission struck a balance between new wireless services, current and future fixed satellite service operations and federal uses. The FCC said the order includes effective sharing schemes to ensure that diverse users, including satellite and terrestrial, as well as fixed and mobile, can coexist and expand.

"The race to 5G is on," said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, noting that the order collectively represents more than 3 gigahertz of spectrum that will become available for licensed use. There's also what she called the Wi-Fi dividend, or a cut for unlicensed in the 64-71 GHz band. "These airwaves can be combined with a swath of unlicensed spectrum that is nearby – meaning new and exciting possibilities for Wi-Gig innovation."

Indeed, while some companies have been studying and working in the millimeter wave spectrum for years, the FCC's move is expected to attract myriad new entrants. 5G will usher in a new era with new players disrupting the current service provider landscape, and these new players will compete with traditional service providers to offer new "as a service" business models and network slicing for dynamic on-demand, service-specific network provisioning to address particular use cases and services, according to research firm Strategy Analytics.

One of the pioneers in millimeter wave research, Ted Rappaport, an IEEE fellow and founding director of NYU Wireless, called today's vote an "historic moment, a turning point, as the Renaissance of wireless begins." The professor and his students conducted ground-breaking research into the spectrum that was once deemed undesirable.

"Carriers and entrepreneurs alike now have a true wireless fiber opportunity for fixed and mobile, and our work at NYU Wireless has proven both the physics and the potential," Rappaport said in a statement. "There is no doubt that giant new businesses and applications that exploit this unprecedented spectrum will change our world in amazing ways over the next decade."

"Now rural carriers and entrepreneurs can reap true fiber-like service in rural areas. NYU's work shows there is no technical limitation when site specific deployment is used," he added.

CTIA, while it had registered opposition with specific parts of the proposal before the vote, was overall pleased with the move. "Today's vote by the FCC to make high band spectrum available for 5G was a clear victory for Americans' mobile-first lives," said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker in a prepared statement. "America is the world's 4G LTE leader and, in the race to 5G, we are positioned well with this spectrum to fuel the next generation of networks, devices and apps. We applaud the FCC Chairman and Commissioners for taking this important step of making more spectrum available for Americans."

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the vote represents a monumental step and posed the question that remains on many minds: What is 5G? While a lot is still unknown as the technology makes its way through the standards process, what is known is that "the next wireless evolution promises to fundamentally change the way we live, interact and engage with our communities," she said. "There is seemingly no limit on how what we refer to as 5G could impact our everyday existence."

For more:
- see this FCC site for the release

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