FCC commissioner targets midband spectrum for 5G within 2 years

FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly speaks at the WIA’s Connect (X) show. (Mike Dano/FierceWireless)

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina—One of the FCC’s five commissioners said that he’s working to release enough midband spectrum over the next two years that providers could create a new, fully operational 5G network using the licenses.

Those comments, made here at the WIA’s Connect (X) show by Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, are noteworthy considering he is taking the lead at the agency in the industry’s ongoing CBRS proceeding. Wireless industry players are keen to see the FCC act on that proceeding because it will release up to 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band for both licensed and unlicensed operations.

However, O'Rielly gave no indication about how and when the FCC might act on the CBRS issue. He said that geographic licensing sizes are the last sticking point in the proceeding—large wireless operators are pushing the FCC to issue 3.5 GHz licenses in larger geographic sizes, while others are urging the agency to issue smaller licenses—but he didn’t say how the agency might fall on the issue. O'Rielly also did not say when the FCC might issue final rules on the 3.5 GHz band, though many in the industry expect the agency to do so this summer.

Nonetheless, O'Rielly said that the CBRS band is just one of several that he hopes to release to the wireless industry in the next two years. He also pointed to the 3.45-3.55 GHz the NTIA may release, and the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, also known as the C band.

And O’Rielly hinted that another band that the FCC may investigate, the 4.9 GHz band, may free up additional spectrum because he said that public-safety users on that band currently only use 3% of the available 4.9 GHz licenses today.

“This commission is completely committed to this purpose” of freeing up spectrum, O’Rielly said, adding that the FCC is working to release both licensed and unlicensed spectrum; he specifically pointed to the agency’s work in 6 GHz and the 5.9 GHz bands in unlicensed. “It’s something we’re really working on.”

The purpose, O’Rielly made clear, is to ensure that the United States can take a leading role in the global rollout of 5G wireless network technology. He said the issue is critical because some countries have taken an “industrial policy” toward the deployment of 5G. Though O’Rielly didn’t name China, that country’s government has moved to issue spectrum and deployment targets to China’s government-controlled telecom carriers and infrastructure vendors.

“There definitely, in my opinion, is a race” to 5G, O’Rielly said, adding that the United States is “well positioned” in the race.

Interestingly, O’Rielly said that, beyond releasing spectrum, the FCC will also look to smooth the deployment of 5G infrastructure, including small cells. Indeed, the FCC has already voted on rules geared toward removing or loosening rules around small cell rollouts.

Now, O’Rielly said, the FCC next plans to look at city and state rules that are hindering the rollout of small cells. Specifically, he said the agency would move against “bad actors”: cities and states that are seeking to charge wireless operators unreasonable fees to deploy small cells, or are moving too slowly on the topic. “We’ve tried the nice approach,” O’Rielly said. Now, “we’ll have to take the aggressive route, and I’m completely comfortable in doing so.”

And what will U.S. providers do with 5G equipment and spectrum? O’Rielly pointed to virtual reality and telehealth, but noted that “there are so many other possibilities that we don’t and can’t imagine now.”