US telecom groups ask FCC to consider 5G-friendly rules for 12 GHz spectrum

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A group of American tech trade organizations and think tanks is pushing the Federal Communications Commission to open up additional satellite spectrum for 5G use — and it’s not the C Band. In a recent letter to the FCC, the organizations, which include the Competitive Carriers Association, argue that the FCC ought to be moving forward on a languishing request that would allow mid-band satellite spectrum at 12.2-12.7 GHz to be used for terrestrial 5G services.

The band is currently used for direct broadcast satellite (DBS) operations and Multichannel Video Distribution and Data Service (MVDDS) operations, and it’s also expected to be used by new Non-geostationary satellite (NGSO) networks that are still in the process of being deployed by players such as SpaceX (and OneWeb, which recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which put its network plans in limbo although it has already launched some satellites). But, crucially, there are no government agencies operating in that spectrum and a limited number of companies are licensed to use the band, according to the organizations’ letter. That makes the 500 megahertz of spectrum relatively low-hanging fruit, as far as spectrum repurposing goes.

The request for license modifications that would allow terrestrial mobile operations in the band has been around since 2016, when Dish petitioned the FCC. To date, the agency has not taken action on it. That could change, however, as 5G becomes a reality, and the FCC seeks more mid-band spectrum to feed the mobile industry’s move to the next generation of wireless technology — and with Dish tapped to become a fourth facilities-based competitor as part of the conditions of the T-Mobile US/Sprint merger.

In a 2019 presentation to the FCC, RS Access, (a license holder in the band, backed by Michael Dell’s MSD Capital private capital investment fund) argued that three major factors encumber the use of the use of the band: Outdated rules which were established in 2002; low power limits, at 1/10 of PCS handset power; and a requirement that the airwaves be used for fixed, one-way data rather than two-way communications.

Satellite companies, including AT&T’s DirecTV, have long been skeptical of changes to the licensing rules, however. And as recently as December 2019, newcomer SpaceX told the FCC that “current plans for conversion of MVDDS spectrum to mobile use will have an enormous detrimental effect on SpaceX’s ability to serve American consumers” and asked the agency not to act on such requests “until a viable coordination strategy has been agreed upon.”

But according to the letter from CCA, the Computer & Communications Industry Association, Public Knowledge, the Open Technology Institute at New America think tank and tech and network trade association INCOMPAS, those organizations said that it is their understanding that “increasing current power limitations in the band and allowing two-way use would result in little or no disruption to existing co-primary operations. The lack of federal encumbrances in the band creates a clear path for bringing this spectrum to market quickly and efficiently.

“The current technical rules for 12.2-12.7 GHz are obsolete and burdensome, preventing use of this spectrum for 5G wireless services. Given the changes in technology since these rules were first set by the Commission in 2002, maintaining these restrictions appears to be unwarranted. If two-way, 5G wireless broadband services were allowed, initial use cases would include fixed broadband, mobile 5G services to handsets and street level Internet of Things opportunities. Seeking comment on approaches for expanding flexible and more intensive uses of the band without causing harmful interference to incumbent operations holds the promise of substantial economic gains for the United States in the form of new investment, new jobs, and new consumer services,” the groups concluded.

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