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FCC finally opens up 3.5 GHz for US telcos

It might be years overdue, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made the first tentative steps towards utilising valuable assets in the 3.5 GHz spectrum band.

Described as the C-Band, or at times the ‘Innovation Band’, the 3.5 GHz spectrum assets have been widely recognised around the world as the key to unlocking 5G in the short-term. Thanks to a more palatable compromise between coverage and speed, these spectrum assets have been the most desirable for telcos in Europe and Asia.

In appointing CommScope, Federated Wireless, Google and Sony as its four Spectrum Access System (SAS) Administrators, US telcos might have the opportunity to access the spectrum in the near future.

“The FCC has made it a priority to free up mid-band spectrum for advanced wireless services like 5G,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “And today, I’m pleased to announce the latest step to achieve that priority: the approval of four systems that will enable the 3.5 GHz band to be put to use for the benefit of American consumers and businesses.

“As with all of our efforts to execute on the 5G FAST plan, we’re pushing to get next-generation wireless services deployed in the 3.5 GHz band as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

While many of the US telcos have been preaching the benefits of mmWave spectrum to deliver 5G services, many have been critical of the approach. It might deliver eye-wateringly fast download speeds, though the coverage from cell sites is currently pathetic, as are the propagation characteristics. There is a very good reason the vast majority of regulators have prioritised the 3.5 GHz spectrum band; it offers increased download speed but does not frustrate on coverage anywhere near as much.

The issue for the FCC and US telcos in the 3.5 GHz spectrum band has been one of congestion. The US Navy has been utilising the spectrum in recent years and is reluctant to permanently vacate due to the compatibility of its equipment on ships and bases. Overhauling the US Navy radar system is hardly a simple task, though as it does not make use of the spectrum in all places and at all times, a new solution was needed.

What will emerge over the near future is an innovative dynamic spectrum sharing mechanism, with the four SASs key to the success. The 3.55-3.7 GHz band will now be split into 15 channels, with access for third parties and telcos being managed by the SASs, though the Navy will have priority use as and when demanded. However, the Navy’s use of the spectrum will largely be limited to the coastal areas.

While the US is very late to the 3.5 GHz spectrum party, it is bringing a very interesting idea with it. Such a dynamic spectrum sharing initiative is an excellent idea to make use of scarce and valuable assets. There will be numerous regulators watching this project very closely.

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