While the C-band auction is the topping the charts at $80 billion and counting, the FCC is looking at some slightly higher band spectrum that could serve mobile carriers' 5G needs.
The FCC on Tuesday voted unanimously to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking comment on ways the 12 GHz band might be better used. The NPRM will ask for input on possible methods for allowing new uses in the band while protecting incumbents.
The band has been the subject of a fair amount of drama in recent months, with the interests of billionaires duking it out in FCC lobbying efforts. The billionaires include Dish Network co-founder and Chairman Charlie Ergen, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Dell Technologies CEO Michael Dell. Both Dish and Dell invested in licenses in the 12 GHz band, but they’ve been pressing for rule changes so that the band can be used for two-way wireless communications and 5G.
SpaceX argues that it needs the band for its fledgling Starlink satellite constellation, which is poised to provide broadband services in under-served areas. The company pushed back against an NPRM, saying that it would undermine satellite investments in the band. But some commenters believe mobile services can co-exist with satellite services.
During a conference call with reporters after his last meeting as the FCC chairman on Wednesday, Ajit Pai was asked about the 12 GHz band. He said it was important to him that the NPRM be neutral, “to figure out what is the best way to think about this 500 megahertz of spectrum… It’s not going to be the politics, it’s going to be the record, in particular the technical studies that will be very important.”
It will be up to the next commission to figure out whether the rules of the band should be modified or not and if so, how it should be done, he said. That will be driven in large part by the staff of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau and others to inform the best way forward.
The current rules for the band were created before satellite-based direct TV started going south. Dish had petitioned for a rulemaking back in 2016 that would allow for sharing direct broadcast satellite (DBS) spectrum with 5G services. Dish holds licenses in the band covering 75% of the U.S. population, and RS Access, after purchasing it from MDS in 2018, holds licenses covering 15%.
“By adopting the 12 GHz NPRM, the FCC has taken an important step forward in evaluating the rules governing the 12 GHz band to better align with today's 5G world,” said Jeff Blum, Dish EVP of External and Legislative Affairs, in a statement Wednesday. “Dish, along with other 12 GHz license holders, public interest groups and trade associations, supports the review of these antiquated rules, and we thank the commission for initiating this important process.”
He added that the 12 GHz band represents 500 megahertz of spectrum that is suited for terrestrial, two-way 5G use cases, while being able to protect DBS operations. "We look forward to working with the commission throughout this process to determine the best use of the band to further close the digital divide and advance our nation’s position in the race to 5G," he said.
It’s not clear exactly how the spectrum would get into the hands of wireless carriers. It depends on what changes are made to the band, and the NPRM is a starting point.
“We want this asset to be used most efficiently and most effectively for U.S. consumers and for the benefit of the marketplace,” said V. Noah Campbell, co-founder and CEO of RS Access, which holds 80 licenses in the 12 GHz band.
RS Access, which has ties to the Dell family, had been a strong proponent of the NRPM. Campbell said he’s not sure what will happen to the licenses that RS Access holds; that will have to be determined via the NPRM and ensuing process.
RS Access isn’t currently offering a commercial service using the 12 GHz band but it has built out 300 links across 60 of its markets. Through their deployments, they’ve seen first-hand how the spectrum propagates significantly farther than millimeter wave, and the band represents almost twice the amount that’s being auctioned in the C-band.
To Campbell’s mind, taking a new look at the band is long overdue. After all, it was auctioned two years before the iPhone came out and since then, demand for satellite TV services has dwindled while the demand for mobile data is sky-high.
“This is spectrum that time left behind,” he said. “This process gives the commission — and the public — an opportunity to assess the benefits of modernizing outdated legacy restrictions on the 12 GHz band written in 2002. The combination of favorable propagation characteristics and potential for deep channels make 12 GHz frequencies well-suited for next-generation wireless services.”
Prospects for sharing, fixed wireless
The network advocacy group INCOMPAS noted that the vote was unanimous on the part of the commission, which remains in a Republican majority until the Biden administration steps in next week.
“The bipartisan, unanimous FCC vote will benefit our nation, encouraging innovators to bring new ideas forward and give consumers more choice as additional providers seek to compete in the 5G arena,” said INCOMPAS CEO Chip Pickering in a statement. “We want to thank Chairman Ajit Pai and the entire FCC for their openness and support for a public conversation on 12 GHz.”
Kathleen Burke, policy counsel at Public Knowledge, said the organization agrees the commission’s rules need to protect satellite as the primary use of the 12 GHz band. “But, we also believe that there are other terrestrial uses of this band that will not harmfully interfere with satellite providers. We need to strike a balance and ensure that our nation’s spectrum is efficiently allocated, and this NPRM does just that,” she said in a statement.
“Our public interest coalition is pleased to see the commission moving ahead to seek comment on how to make more intensive use of this contiguous 500 megahertz. It’s clear the band is very underutilized and that a greater degree of spectrum sharing is possible, yet there are important satellite services that need to be protected,” said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America’s Open Technology Institute.
“Among the potential uses we will advocate is low-power unlicensed sharing and the potential coordination of opportunistic access to unused spectrum in rural and underserved areas where WISPs and other operators to boost fixed wireless services that narrow the digital divide," Calabrese said.