mobile spectrum to a smartphone

On his way out the door, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is teeing up the potential of adding significant new 5G spectrum to the marketplace. The FCC chair has circulated an NPRM for a fresh look at spectrum in the 12 GHz band, also known as MVDDS spectrum.

This spectrum, which is located in the 12.2 GHz to 12.7 GHz, is currently allocated for use with satellite services, including video distribution through direct broadcast satellite (DBS) service. It has also been approved for terrestrial one-way fixed use, for both video and data.

The proposed NPRM will explore expanding the use of the spectrum to include mobile two-way use, or 5G. The NPRM will seek comment on how to expand the use of this spectrum, while protecting incumbent use.

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There’s a lot of spectrum to play with here – 500 MHz to be exact. Considering the current C-band spectrum auction proceeds are approaching $70 billion, this potentially new 5G spectrum could be quite valuable. While most of the attention focuses on the potential for mobile services using this new 5G spectrum, there are fixed 5G wireless opportunities with it as well.

Interestingly, the largest holder of this spectrum happens to be DISH, who have interests in both DBS and 5G. There is strong opposition to the idea of an NPRM from some pretty powerful players, including Elon Musk and SpaceX, who claim expanding use of the spectrum could interfere with the emerging satellite broadband service, Starlink. AT&T is also opposed.

“The current rules governing the 12 GHz Band are outdated, inefficient, and ripe for review in today’s 5G world. DISH, along with other 12 GHz license holders, public interest groups and trade associations, have called for the review of these antiquated rules, and we thank the Commission for circulating a neutral NPRM,” said Jeff Blum, DISH EVP of External and Legislative Affairs in a prepared statement about the potential new 5G spectrum. “The 12 GHz band represents 500 megahertz of spectrum that is suited for terrestrial, two-way 5G use cases, while being able to protect DBS operations.”

Technology giant Dell CEO Michael Dell also has an interest in this spectrum, through his personal investment firm MSD Capital, which backs RS Access, another holder of MVDDS spectrum.

“A notice-and-comment rulemaking demonstrates the FCC’s clear support for exploring how 12 GHz can nearly double the nationwide availability of mid-band spectrum while catapulting the U.S. to a lead position in telecom competitiveness globally,” said V. Noah Campbell, Co-Founder and CEO of RS Access in a prepared statement. “The 500 MHz of contiguous, terrestrially licensed spectrum between 12.2 and 12.7 GHz represents the FCC’s greatest opportunity to meet exploding demand for mobile broadband.”

According to an FCC fact sheet, the NPRM, if adopted would seek comment on:

  • Whether to add a mobile service allocation throughout the 12 GHz band.
  • Technical parameters that would allow for additional terrestrial shared use of the band without causing harmful interference to incumbent operators.
  • Possible methods for assigning flexible-use rights in the band, including:
    • Modifying the licenses of existing MVDDS licensees to grant them flexible-use rights,
    • Auctioning overlay licenses in the band, or
    • Authorizing underlay use of the band.
  • Potential sharing mechanisms for the band, if coexistence among the co-primary services (i.e., DBS, NGSO FSS, MVDSS incumbents) and proposed flexible-use service is technically feasible.
  • Whether the costs of accommodating new services in the band exceed the benefits and whether the Commission should therefore maintain the status quo for the 12 GHz band.

This issue has been debated for quite some time. The move to circulate an NPRM for this new 5G spectrum use comes from an April 2016 rulemaking petition from the MVDDS 5G Coalition.

The full commission now must act on the proposed NPRM before it’s adopted.

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