With just a few weeks left in his tenure at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Chairman Ajit Pai circulated to his colleagues a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that, if adopted, would seek comment on whether to allow mobiles services in the 12 GHz band.
Opponents of the NPRM include SpaceX, which is using the 12 GHz band for its Starlink broadband satellite service, while proponents include Dish Network, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) and Public Knowledge.
According to a fact sheet provided by the FCC, the item doesn’t include tentative conclusions but would seek input on possible methods for assigning new flexible use rights while protecting incumbents of the band. It also seeks answers on whether the costs of accommodating new services in the band would exceed the benefits.
The chairman’s proposal comes in response to an April 2016 petition for rulemaking from the MVDDS 5G Coalition. That’s when Dish Network and other Multichannel Video and Data Distribution Service (MVDDS) licensees asked the FCC to open an NPRM and consider new rules for the band to make it more 5G friendly.
In the U.S., the 12.2-12.7 GHz band is allocated on a primary basis for Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS), Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) for non-geostationary orbit systems (NGSO FSS) and Fixed Service, specifically MVDDS.
While the satellite TV business has been going south for a while now, SpaceX has been building out its Starlink business, where it’s invested hundreds of millions of dollars, and it says it needs the 12 GHz band – and it didn’t want the FCC fiddling with an NPRM. SpaceX recently garnered $885 million in Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I auction.
At one point, SpaceX boss Elon Musk got on a conference call with Chairman Pai to discuss the 12 GHz band. According to an October ex parte filing, SpaceX gave an overview of its extensive progress in deploying its Starlink constellation and urged the commission to reject the MVDDS community’s demands for what it called an “open-ended rulemaking” that would introduce regulatory uncertainty into the market.
However, those on the MVDDS side of the argument say SpaceX has been on notice not to rely on the 12 GHz band since before it even launched any satellites. Besides that, the 12 GHz band represents only about 3% of the total 15,000+ megahertz of spectrum at its disposal.
Shared use examined
If adopted, the NPRM would seek comment on a number of issues, including technical parameters that would allow for additional terrestrial shared use of the band without harming incumbents; possible methods for assigning new rights in the band; and potential sharing mechanisms.
Naturally, Dish was pleased to hear of the NPRM. “The current rules governing the 12 GHz Band are outdated, inefficient, and ripe for review in today’s 5G world. DISH, along with other 12 GHz license holders, public interest groups and trade associations, have called for the review of these antiquated rules, and we thank the Commission for circulating a neutral NPRM,” said Jeff Blum, EVP of External and Legislative Affairs at Dish, in a statement.
“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,” Blum said. “We look forward to working with the Commission as it considers the NPRM 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.”
V. Noah Campbell, co-founder and CEO of RS Access, which holds about 15% of MVDDS spectrum, also applauded the chairman’s decision to put a 12 GHz NPRM on circulation. Campbell and his firm, which is backed by MSD Capital, a private investment firm managing the assets of Dell founder Michael Dell and his family, had lobbied the FCC to take a new look at the 12 GHz band.
“This action moves the U.S. one step closer to unleashing the 12 GHz band, which will supercharge 5G deployment throughout the country for next-generation mobile broadband services,” Campbell said in a statement.
He added that a notice-and-comment rulemaking demonstrates the FCC's clear support for exploring how 12 GHz can “nearly double the nationwide availability of mid-band spectrum while catapulting the U.S. to a lead position in telecom competitiveness globally. The 500 MHz of contiguous, terrestrially licensed spectrum between 12.2 and 12.7 GHz represents the FCC's greatest opportunity to meet exploding demand for mobile broadband.”
The 12 GHz band wasn’t always considered mid-band spectrum, the definition of which has shifted in recent years as operators started using millimeter wave, or high-band, spectrum for 5G. But the government itself has referred to it as mid-band spectrum, so it’s not that big of a stretch, according to Campbell.