Wheeler seeks new rules to open 'vast amounts of spectrum for 5G'

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he'll ask the Commission next month to approve new rules "that will identify and open up vast amounts of spectrum for 5G applications."

The FCC is in the midst of its first incentive auction, which will see airwaves that once belonged to TV broadcasters be sold off for use by wireless service providers. And the Commission is opening up mid-band spectrum – which Wheeler said "often seems the Jan Brady of the spectrum world" – through efforts such as last year's AWS-3 auction and the creation of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service in the 3.5 GHz band.

Next month, Wheeler said, the FCC will focus on high-band spectrum that provides "super-fast data rates with low latency" for next-generation use cases.

"The big game-changer is that 5G will use much higher-frequency bands than previously thought viable for mobile broadband and other applications," Wheeler said in a speech at the National Press Club. "Such millimeter wave signals have physical properties that are both a limitation and a strength: they tend to travel best in narrow and straight lines, and do not go through physical obstacles very well. This means that very narrow signals in an urban environment tend to bounce around buildings and other obstacles making it difficult to connect to a moving point. But it also means that the spectrum can be reused over and over again."

The Commission will vote on the so-called Spectrum Frontiers proceeding July 14, weighing in on what Wheeler described as "the final piece in the spectrum trifecta of low-band, mid-band and high-band airwaves." Approval will make more licensed spectrum available for mobile use "than in the cumulative history of mobile spectrum allocation," he said, and the Commission will also begin to seek public comments on opening other high-frequency bands.

"The ability to use this high-frequency spectrum opens much bigger chunks of spectrum," Wheeler said. "Current blocks of licensed low-band spectrum are usually 5 to 10 MHz in width. With 5G, however, we are looking at blocks of at least 200 MHz in width. This will allow networks to carry much more traffic per user – gigabits of throughput instead of megabits. This is an order of magnitude growth in the channel capacity available to a provider, supporting, for example, simultaneously high-speed connections to mobile end users as well as 'backhaul on demand' via immediate, dynamic provisioning of fixed wireless transport to the nearest fiber interconnection point, allowing faster and more flexible deployment of small cells."

CTIA today praised Wheeler's remarks, with CEO Meredith Attwell Baker saying in a blog post that making more high-band airwaves available will "jump start our nation's 5G efforts." Baker called for new local siting and rights-of-way rules, though, and urged the FCC to bring more low- and mid-band spectrum to market. "The ongoing 600 MHz auction is a significant down payment," Baker wrote, "but a consistent pipeline of additional spectrum is necessary to meet America's current and future mobile demands."

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