Fluid and Frozen: FCC Ponders Best Path Forward for 4 GHz Band

The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) recently took steps to preserve the status quo for existing users in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band (the “4 GHz Band”) while it considers myriad options to restructure that spectrum for commercial flexible mobile use and more intensive fixed use. The FCC appears set to move forward with deliberation while it considers modifications to the regulatory structure in the adjacent 3.5 GHz Band (3.55-3.70 GHz). Both bands are touted by the mobile industry, and the FCC itself, as key mid-spectrum bands for next generation networks and applications, including 5G and the Internet of Things.

Many other countries are moving forward with plans to make these and/or nearby frequencies available for 5G this year or shortly thereafter, underscoring the FCC’s drive to move forward expeditiously. However, given the variety of views regarding the 4 GHz Band generated in the 2017 Mid-Band Notice of Inquiry (“Mid-Band NOI”), as well as in response to the recent FCC public notice seeking comment to help prepare the report to Congress on the 4 GHz Band required by the recently-passed RAY BAUM’S Act, there is every reason to expect that the precise outcomes of this proceeding will remain uncertain for some time despite the general move toward making more spectrum available for flexible use applications.

The agency’s most significant recent action was to release a public draft of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Order (“Draft NPRM”) that it plans to vote on at its upcoming July 12 Open Meeting. As a general matter, the Draft NPRM makes plain the FCC has before it three primary objectives which, in both the near- and long-term, may be in tension:

  • Add a primary mobile allocation to the band (except aeronautical mobile) and propose to clear at least part of the band for flexible mobile use “beginning at 3.7 GHz and moving higher up in the band as more spectrum is cleared.”
  • Consider rule changes that “promote more spectrum efficient and intensive fixed use of the band on a shared basis starting in the top segment of the band [i.e., near and below 4.2 GHz] and moving down the band,” namely point-to-multipoint (“P2MP”) services.
  • Protect incumbent operations – fixed point-to-point and fixed satellite service (“FSS”) – in the band.
The resolution of these tensions and weighing the current and potential future uses is the key task before the FCC. An exact mix of how the two types of services – flexible mobile and point-to-multipoint – will share access to the band (and protect incumbents) is not spelled out in the Draft NPRM. The resolution of these competing objectives promises for a fluid, if not contentious, proceeding as there are a host of differing positions put forth by the mobile industry (led by CTIA), the Broadband Access Coalition, members of the satellite industry, and others. Tellingly, the Draft NPRM reflects many options for licensing (auctions and non-auctions), service, and coordination rules.

As the FCC recognizes, key challenges will be “to protect existing earth station users while limiting uses that would hamper new intensive terrestrial use of the band” and what protection should be afforded existing fixed microwave links. The FCC will tackle the relative obligations and/or rights that each category of protected incumbents may have under each approach for more intense terrestrial use of the band and determine which, if any, categories of incumbents must new flexible use licensees relocate and under what standards, terms, or rules.

The challenge of protecting earth station users will require information the FCC does not yet have. The same day the FCC released the Draft NPRM, the International Bureau extended by 90 days the recently opened temporary filing window – from the original July 18 deadline to October 17, 2018 – for existing earth station operators to license or register earth stations in the 4 GHz Band that currently are not licensed or registered. When that window was open, the FCC froze all new FSS earth station and fixed microwave link applications and registrations, as applicable, in the 4 GHz Band. Further, the International Bureau, also on June 21, simultaneously issued a second public notice announcing a temporary freeze, effective immediately, on the filing of new space station license applications and new requests for U.S. market access through non-U.S.-licensed space stations to provide service in the 4 GHz Band.

The ostensible purpose of the earth station filing window afforded to operators is to allow the FCC to better understand the extent to which the band is used prior to making changes that could impact those uses. While almost 5,000 earth stations were licensed or registered as of the time of the freeze, many were not. Estimates are that there may be thousands of stations that are not in the database, but were constructed and operational, in use for a variety of non-governmental (e.g., video content) and governmental purposes (e.g., environmental and meteorological data and alerts).

The proof may be in the pudding, meaning the number of station operators that take advantage of the filing window. The Draft NPRM states the FCC’s tentative conclusion to not afford interference protection of any kind to earth station operators who do not both license or register existing operations by the October 17 deadline and also respond to an additional information request (and requirement for a certification of construction and operational status) that the Draft NPRM would direct the International Bureau, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, and the Office of Engineering and Technology to issue in a subsequent public notice. Indeed, the Draft NPRM seeks comment on making the freezes permanent (both for earth stations and space stations). The FCC appears to have concluded tentatively that limiting new earth stations in this manner would provide a stable spectral environment for more intensive terrestrial use, an issue to be resolved in the rulemaking based, in part, on the data collected. To complement the data collected as a result of filings made during the current limited window and in response to the forthcoming public notice contemplated by the Draft NPRM, the FCC intends to consult with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and affected Federal agencies regarding the Federal entities, stations, and operations in the 4 GHz Band.

In addition to better understanding FSS use, the FCC concludes that co-channel sharing between incumbents and mobile services is not feasible, and seeks comment on different proposals to clear all or part of the band for flexible mobile use. Echoing some of the considerations that are in play in the contentious Ligado license modification proceedings, i.e., in the 1675-1680 MHz band where Ligado hopes to gain access to spectrum currently used for the downlinking of GOES-R weather data by transitioning satellite users to a terrestrial content delivery network, the Draft NPRM asks whether there are alternative technologies and means by which earth station operators can retrieve their information currently made available via 4 GHz Band FSS.

One last item of note: The Draft NPRM has its roots in the record developed in response to the FCC’s 2017 Mid-Band NOI, which sought to obtain information on existing and proposed uses of spectrum between 3.7 GHz and 24 GHz in the search for additional spectrum for flexible use. The Mid-Band NOI sought specific comment on the 4 GHz Band, as well as the “6 GHz Bands,” in particular 5.925- 6.425 GHz and 6.425-7.125 GHz. The Draft NPRM does not extend to the 6 GHz Bands, but foreshadows that the FCC “may address” these and other mid-band spectrum “in subsequent items.” Given the strong interest in the 6 GHz bands by advocates of unlicensed operations, and the FCC’s general goals of making unlicensed spectrum available along with licensed frequencies, those subsequent actions may be coming to an FCC Open Meeting soon.