FCC to explore 5G services, auctioned or unlicensed, above 24 GHz

WASHINGTON--The FCC voted 5-0 to launch an inquiry into how best to deploy next-generation wireless services at spectrum frequencies above 24 GHz. Such spectrum is being eyed as a key element of still-undefined "5G" networks.

Most commercial wireless spectrum runs below 3 GHz, but many industry analysts and experts expect 5G networks to make use of millimeter-wave spectrum at much higher frequencies to produce faster data speeds and more capacity. To get ahead of 5G network deployments, the FCC wants to know how it can change its rules to facilitate the deployment of such network technologies. 5G networks are expected to be commercially deployed by 2020, though there is no clear definition yet of what 5G networks will look like.

One aspect of the FCC's inquiry will look at how spectrum that has so far been used only for line-of-sight transmission can be used for commercial wireless service. In theory, spectrum can be ricocheted and received by multiple receivers, which would detect multiple reflections of a signal, gather them together and build the disparate signals into an intelligible data signal.

The inquiry is designed to collect comments on such technologies, and will also look at the technologies, network architectures and operational challenges that carriers, vendors and others will face in operating above 24 GHz. The probe will also look how the FCC's technical rules can be applied to millimeter-wave spectrum and how to mitigate interference with existing services.

Additionally, the probe will seek comment on the suitability of using a series of different spectrum bands above 24 GHz, including how those bands are being used now.

Further, the inquiry will look at different licensing mechanisms for spectrum bands above 24 GHz. The FCC will explore whether such spectrum should be exclusively licensed based on specific geographic areas via  auctions, or whether there should be non-exclusive access and frequency coordination, similar to the tiered-use approach the FCC is taking in its 3.5 GHz proceeding. The commission is also going to look into unlicensed or hybrid use of such spectrum.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said at a press conference after the FCC's open meeting that one of the reasons the U.S. has become "the world leader in 4G" in because the FCC "made a decision against industrial policy in saying, this is the way it will be, because that tends to freeze innovation and freeze creativity."

Wheeler said the FCC is taking the same approach with potential 5G services. "I don't care what you call this," he said. "There is a next generation of spectrum capabilities that is going to define a next generation of services." The inquiry, he said, is aimed at trying to figure out how to enable those.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted at the FCC's open meeting that South Korea intends to deploy 5G trial networks by 2018 and Japan aims to do so by 2020. She also noted that the European Commission and South Korea are collaborating on 5G research and development. "We have signs that the rest of the world is on the road to 5G," she said. "And there's no reason for the U.S. to stay stuck in the starting gate."

But, Rosenworcel added, the FCC needs to think differently about high-band frequencies because such spectrum generally has very weak prorogation characteristics. However, she said that when combined with dense small cell deployments, such spectrum can penetrate buildings and provide faster speeds.

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