FCC shows ruthless ‘use it or lose it’ attitude with 4.9 GHz band

The FCC has demonstrated that, contrary to popular opinion, public sector offices can be sensible and pragmatic as it considers the options for the underused 4.9 GHz spectrum band.

Back in 2002, 50 megahertz of spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band was designated for use by public safety services, though uptake has been almost non-existent. While there are more than 90,000 organizations which are eligible to obtain licenses in the band, there have only been 3,174 granted. With only 3.5% of the eligible organizations making use of the spectrum, the FCC is quite rightly questioning whether this is the most efficient use of a valuable asset.

There are of course reasons behind the minimal uptake, difficulty of acquiring equipment and the cost of deployment are two, but the FCC is taking a pleasantly pragmatic approach to the situation. Spectrum is a finite resource for the connected economy, therefore the FCC has a responsibility to ensure it is being used effectively. There will of course be suitors from the private sector who will be keen to get their hands on the resource, and the FCC is well aware of this.

“As the demand for wireless services continues to grow, it is imperative that the FCC takes steps to ensure underutilized spectrum bands are used efficiently,” said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. “This is as true for spectrum allocated to public safety as it is for the bands used to support commercial wireless broadband services.”

“That’s why today’s Sixth Further Notice is important,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “Our goals are simple: To promote more productive use of the band, to foster the development of new technologies, and to spur investment. We believe that we will unleash the potential of this band with the proposals we consider here, from aggregating channels into larger blocks to facilitate broadband use to opening the door to more spectrum sharing.”

While reserving spectrum for public safety might be seen as a good political move, with the massive demand for mobile services only intensifying it just isn’t practical. Possible use cases for the newly available spectrum could be more 5G access, robotics or even drones. The FCC hasn’t made up its mind yet but the telco lobbyists will be starting to sharpen their knifes. Another aspect which is unclear is whether this spectrum will be auctioned off or would be billed as unlicensed spectrum.

Various different spectrum-sharing ideas are on the table, as is opening up the band to move inventive ideas from the public safety sector, such as police drones, but Commissioner Michael O’Rielly has firmly set himself in the commercial camp. In a much longer-winded statement than from his colleagues, O’Rielly suggests removing the public-safety designation from the airwaves.

“It has been 16 years since the 4.9 GHz band was allocated to the public safety community, and it is still woefully underutilized,” said O’Rielly. “That is not sustainable in an environment in which every megahertz of spectrum, especially below 6 GHz, needs to be fully scrutinized and maximized in quick order. While the Commission’s original allocation was more than likely well-intentioned, it is way past time to take a fresh look at this 50 megahertz of spectrum.”

What should also be worth noting is the progress of the Mobile Now bill, which has recently passed through the House and is sitting in the Senate. This bill will lead to the identification of at least 255 MHz of licensed and unlicensed spectrum to fuel the 5G era. This bill will become law in the very near future increasing the need to find the commercially available spectrum. Pai and his cronies will almost certainly be keeping an eye on the 4.9 GHz band for this purpose.

The use case might not be clear for the moment, but this spectrum band does seem to be getting slowly nudged away from public services. With the ink drying on the Mobile Now bill, you don’t have to be a genius to pick up on the signs that this spectrum is shifting into the commercial world.

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