FCC Tees Up Major Reconfiguration of 900 MHz Part 90 Spectrum

Following on its 2017 Notice of Inquiry and proposals by several entities going back at least five years, the FCC is poised to consider establishment of a wireless broadband service in the 900 MHz band (896-901/935-940 MHz), a major change from its historical use for narrowband private land mobile radio. At its March 15 Open Meeting, the FCC will consider a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) that would propose to allot 60% of the spectrum for wireless broadband licensees’ use, subject to commercial mobile rules, while preserving the remainder for continued narrowband operations . The comments on the NPRM, assuming it is adopted, will follow publication in the Federal Register, but the length of the comment periods is not set out in the draft.

Currently, the entire 900 MHz band is designated for narrowband private land mobile radio communications and it has been primarily used for two-way dispatch radio communications by land transportation, utility, manufacturing, and petrochemical companies. The NPRM proposes to reconfigure the band to serve the commercial wireless broadband needs of similar business and industrial entities. The FCC’s goal with this item is to create opportunities for robust broadband networks that fully support critical communication systems and that ensure the low latency and ultra-high reliability required by electric and other utilities” and other business and industrial users.

The main proposal would split the band, with one segment supporting the existing narrowband operations while the other segment would be designated for broadband solutions, conceptually proposing a realignment first championed by Enterprise Wireless Alliance (“EWA”) and pdvWireless, Inc. (“PDV”) in 2014. The broadband segment would use a paired 3/3 megahertz arrangement while two paired segments above and below the broadband designation, 1.5 and .5 megahertz, respectively, would be retained for conventional narrowband operations. Specifically, the draft NPRM proposes to designate 897.5-900.5 MHz/936.5-939.5 MHz as the broadband segment while leaving the two remaining segments— 896-897.5/935-936.5 MHz and 900.5-901/939.5-940 MHz— for Part 90 narrowband. The NPRM also proposes to tweak the co-primary Mobile allocation in the 900 MHz band by excepting Aeronautical Mobile Service to be more consistent with allocations in adjacent bands in the international frequency allocation table.

Rather than simply modify the current Part 90 Rules to create the framework for the proposed broadband service, the draft NPRM suggests the Commission may designate the 900 MHz broadband service as a Miscellaneous Wireless Communications Service governed by Part 27 of the Commission’s rules, which govern a variety of flexible carrier-type services, including the Wireless Communications Service, or WCS, in the S-Band and Advanced Wireless Services, or AWS, in the 1.7 and 2.1 GHz Bands. Conventional narrowband land mobile systems that remain in the band would continue to be governed by Part 90.

The draft NPRM recognizes that there may be alternatives to the realignment described above and seeks comment on such alternatives.

One of the most interesting aspects to the draft NPRM is its discussion of how the transition to a realigned band would take place and how broadband licenses would be issued. Due to the significant encumbrances as a result of existing narrowband licenses throughout the band, the draft NPRM would put forth for comment a transition plan whereby existing licensees would coordinate and mutually agree on a plan for relocating site-based systems and transitioning the band for broadband use. Acknowledging that this approach may not work in all geographic markets (or at all), the draft NPRM also would seek input on other transition methods that could be used effectively along with its voluntary exchange proposal. These include an overlay license auction or some form of incentive auction.

Since September 13, 2018, the FCC has not accepted applications for new or expanded 900 MHz operations to maintain a stable spectral landscape while the Commission determined how to proceed with respect to that spectrum. That suspension will ostensibly remain in place while the rulemaking plays out, albeit the Utilities Technology Council filed a petition for reconsideration or clarification of the decision to suspend such applications which remains pending.

UPDATE: On March 13, 2019, in advance of its open meeting, the FCC adopted the NPRM with no major revisions to the draft. However, the Commission expanded its discussion on several key items including the possibility of a market-driven mechanism for clearing the total of six megahertz for flexible use broadband. The NPRM was released on March 14, 2019. Comments and Reply Comments will be due 60 and 90 days, respectively, after Federal Register publication.