Spectrum Takes Center Stage Again at FCC October Meeting

At last week’s 5G summit at the White House, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his Facilitate America’s Superiority in 5G Technology (“5G FAST Plan”). The first of the three components of the Chairman’s announced strategy is making more spectrum available for 5G services by expanding licensed and unlicensed opportunities. To those ends, the FCC announced this week that the Commissioners will vote at its next meeting on October 23, 2018, on three items that would launch a proceeding to consider more unlicensed operations, make rule changes designed to increase the value of mid-band spectrum, and expand channels for land mobile radios primarily used by government agencies and businesses. Specifically, the FCC proposes allowing unlicensed devices to operate in the 5.925-7.125 GHz band (the 6 GHz Band”) to support next-generation unlicensed technologies, including Wi-Fi. The agency also anticipates recrafting the licensing rules related to the Citizens Broadband Radio Service in the 3.550-3.700 GHz band (the 3.5 GHz Band”), with an emphasis on the Priority Access Licenses (“PALs”) it will auction. In addition, the FCC expects to increase, through various methods, the number of channels available for private land mobile radio (“PLMR”) operations in the 806-824 MHz and 851-869 MHz bands (the the 800 MHz Band”).

Rounding out the major actions that will be voted on later this month at the Open Meeting, the FCC released a draft item that would offer regulatory relief to rate-of-return carriers providing Business Data Services (“BDS”). The proposed items are sure to impact every sector of the communications industry, from the largest wireless carriers to the smallest broadband providers and device manufacturers to business, industrial, and public safety radio users, while potentially transforming large-scale data transport services.

Enabling Unlicensed Use of the 6 GHz Band: The FCC has long been pressed to expand unlicensed use of the 6 GHz Band. It now seems poised to commence a rulemaking to consider just that, while ensuring incumbent licensees are protected. The draft proposed rulemaking would allow unlicensed devices to operate in the 6 GHz Band, subject to certain restrictions that vary depending on the specific frequencies used. The FCC proposes that devices using the 5.925-6.425 GHz and 6.525-6.875 GHz sub-bands would only be allowed to transmit if an automated frequency control (“AFC”) system determines that such use will not cause harmful interference. The FCC noted that these sub-bands currently are occupied by licensees operating point-to-point microwave links and some satellite systems. Meanwhile, devices using the 6.425-6.525 GHz and 6.875-7.125 GHz sub-bands would only be allowed to operate indoors and at lower power levels, but use of these frequencies would not depend on an AFC system. The FCC asserted that these sub-bands are used for mobile and satellite services whose itinerant operations make the use of an AFC system impracticable, while the proposed operating restrictions would seem to offer sufficient protection to incumbents.

Reforming the 3.5 GHz Band Rules: Major wireless carriers have peppered the FCC for almost two years with proposed changes to the geographic license areas for PALs, favoring auctions over larger geographic areas, with longer license periods and expectations of renewal. Smaller providers have supported retaining the smaller census tract licenses adopted in the original PAL framework several years ago. The FCC draft order contains a compromise approach that would issue PALs across the country at the county level. The FCC also would increase the license term for PALs from three years to ten years and make PALs renewable in order to foster long-term investment. Moreover, the FCC would seek to promote greater spectrum utilization through the enhancement of secondary markets in PALs by permitting partitioning and disaggregation of the licenses.

Expanding PLMR Operations in the 800 MHz Band: The FCC has worked for years to increase the efficiency of PLMR operations in the 800 MHz Band. A draft order would, among other things, add 318 new interstitial” PLMR channels in the 800 MHz Band and terminate a freeze put in place in 1995 that prevented PLMR licensees from gaining access to other license category pool frequencies the 800 MHz Band without a waiver. The FCC also would extend conditional licensing authority above 470 MHz to PLMR stations that operate in the 800 MHz Band and the 700 MHz narrowband, allowing entities to operate for up to 180 days while their applications remain pending. In addition, other changes included in the draft include making new channels available in the 450-470 MHz band for industrial/business radio use in gaps located between PLMR spectrum and other services.

Restructuring Rate-of-Return BDS: The FCC took action in 2017 to deregulate most BDS, which provide dedicated point-to-point transmissions at guaranteed speeds over high-capacity data connections for major businesses, governments, and other large institutions. Under the draft order and proposed rulemaking, certain small rural carriers would be allowed to move from longstanding rate-of-return regulation to incentive” price cap regulation for some of their BDS offerings. Critically, the FCC would not require these carriers to comply with tariffing, cost assignment, and jurisdictional separations requirements. The draft item would also seek comment on the appropriate regulatory treatment for these carriers’ other transport services, including the need for price controls.