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The appeals court decision last week upholding the FCC’s plans to make 45 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band available for unlicensed use was good news for wireless internet service providers (WISPs), who want to use the spectrum for high-speed fixed wireless service. But there are a few more hurdles before that can happen.

All the spectrum in a 75 MHz band between 5.85 and 5.925 GHz has been in the hands of the auto industry for over 20 years. The goal was to use it to implement a technology known as DSRC for intelligent transportation systems (ITSs), but relatively few deployments of the technology have been made – a reality that prompted the FCC to consider repurposing a portion of the band. Another consideration was changes in technology that, according to the FCC, could enable the auto industry to use less spectrum for ITS.

In November 2020, the commission adopted an order requiring the auto industry to move to the upper 30 MHz portion of the band so that the lower 45 MHz of the band could be made available for unlicensed use. At that time, the commission gave the incumbent auto industry users a year to move, but the appeal, filed by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, delayed that deadline.

5.9 GHz Hurdles

We checked in with Richard Bernhardt, national spectrum advisor for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), to ask when the incumbents would now be required to move. According to Bernhardt, the answer hinges on how and when the FCC responds to a waiver request filed by several automakers, state departments of transportation, and equipment manufacturers requesting a waiver of the commission’s rules for ITS operations. The waiver would allow the automotive stakeholders to deploy Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) technology immediately in the upper 30 GHz of the 5.9 GHz band.

C-V2X has largely obsoleted DSRC technology, but current rules require an authorization process for C-V2X equipment to operate in the 30-MHz band. The waiver request essentially seeks to expedite that authorization process.

If and when the FCC grants that authorization, the incumbents would be able to move, and WISPs would be able to begin using the lower 45 MHz for fixed wireless equipment. Equipment capable of using that spectrum is already in use by WISPs that have received special temporary authority (STA) to use the equipment in the lower 45 MHz.

The lower 45 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band is adjacent to unlicensed spectrum in the 5.8 GHz band, and some equipment manufacturers that offer the 5.8 GHz equipment can use a software update to enable the equipment to use the 5.9 GHz spectrum.

Back in 2020, shortly after COVID first struck and home broadband connectivity became critical, the FCC approved STA for 33 WISPs to use the lower 45 MHz of the 5.9 GHz band. Although the initial STAs were only for 60 days, Bernhardt said that some WISPs that received STAs have been re-applying as needed and have been allowed to continue to use the band.

Shortly after the FCC began granting STA authority to the WISPs, the commission took the time to issue a press release highlighting the experiences of 14 WISPs that were using the lower 45 MHz. According to the release, some WISPs have seen bandwidth increase by as much as 75% using the spectrum.

Updated to correct several references to GHz that should have been MHz

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