FCC says ‘not so fast’ on plan to lease 4.9 GHz to third parties

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Opponents of a new framework for the 4.9 GHz say it would create “a disconnected patchwork of regulations" and harm public safety. (Getty Images)

The FCC issued an order, halting a Trump-era plan to open up the 4.9 GHz band, which is currently dedicated to public safety.

In a 3-1 vote, with Commissioner Brendan Carr dissenting, the FCC decided to halt the implementation of a new leasing framework for the 4.9 GHz (4940-4990 MHz) band. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, Geoffrey Starks and Nathan Simington voted for the stay order.

In September 2020, the then Republican-led FCC issued an order to revise the rules governing the 4.9 GHz band, which previously required licensees to provide public safety services. The new rules would have allowed a single statewide licensee in each state to lease some or all of its spectrum rights to third parties, including commercial entities.

The new rules have not yet gone into effect, and now, the current FCC is halting the process while it further examines use of the spectrum.

The Public Safety Spectrum Alliance, a group that is arguing against the new rules for leasing to commercial entities, says the proposed framework would create “a disconnected patchwork of regulations” as states adopt different rules governing leased access and public safety use. It also argues that given the shared spectrum environment of the 4.9 GHz band, interference to public safety licensees would result.

In his dissent, Commissioner Carr said, it is clear that the status quo in the 4.9 GHz band is not working. “After almost two decades, that 50 MHz swath of spectrum remained woefully underutilized," stated Carr. "So we established a framework that could allow more intensive uses to flourish, including for public safety, by empowering local leaders to determine the best options for this spectrum based on their own circumstances."

How we got here

The 50 megahertz of spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band was designated for public safety use nearly 20 years ago, but only about 2% of eligible public safety entities pursued the means of using it. The under-investment in the band was blamed, in part, on the high cost of equipment.

RELATED: FCC votes to free up 4.9 GHz band for states despite public safety opposition

Former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was gung-ho about tapping unused spectrum. Under his watch, the FCC auctioned 3.5 GHz CBRS spectrum and began the process of auctioning 2.5 GHz unused Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum. Pai said the spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band had become a story of spectrum “haves” – primarily in large cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle – and “have nots,” particularly in the smaller and rural jurisdictions that can’t afford to deploy in the band.

RELATED: FCC starts moving on unique 2.5 GHz auction, license areas

Under the order issued by Pai’s FCC, the agency would have allowed a single state government entity to lease spectrum in the band to third parties, while maintaining and protecting incumbent public safety licensees’ operations. 

The Democrats on the Pai FCC had reservations about the plan. They said history has proven that when spectrum licensees are allowed to lease excess capacity to third parties, the spectrum ends up being used for commercial purposes, and that in the case of the 4.9 GHz spectrum, this would override public safety investments that have been made at the local level.

In its new order, implementing the stay, the Commission said, “We believe the most effective way to further the public interest is by ensuring that we provide certainty before any leasing agreements are entered into or systems are deployed.”