FCC’s 42 GHz plan puts it on potential collision course with big telco

Abstract spectrum background

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s proposal to offer shared access to the 42 GHz band could open the door to a raft of new service providers and business models.

But it could also ruffle a few feathers. Big, fancy feathers with money to spare for lobbying, advertising campaigns and even high-priced lawyers.

Late last week the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) inviting comment on various approaches to making 500 MHz of 42-GHz spectrum available on a non-exclusive basis. Doing so would necessitate the establishment of some sort of sharing mechanism to ensure that a licensee’s services wouldn’t interfere with other users of the same airwaves.

This appears to put the FCC at odds with US industry group CTIA, which has been pushing hard for the release of more exclusive-use spectrum. Its official position is that “auctioned, exclusive-use spectrum forms the core of today’s mobile broadband networks, providing clear protection from interference, enabling investment and high-quality, reliable wireless service.”

In April, it said US operators need access to an additional 400 MHz of full-power, licensed spectrum over the next five years in order to meet projected demand.

CTIA has also been routinely critical of CBRS, the 150 MHz of shared 3.5-GHz spectrum reserved for private mobile networks. In a blog post in May, it cited research reports asserting that it takes seven times the number of CBRS base stations to cover the same area as exclusive-use spectrum, and that its complicated sharing model makes life difficult for enterprises that need consistent quality of service.

“Real-world studies of CBRS utilisation at the local level show practically no usage whatsoever,” wrote Nick Ludlum, CTIA’s chief communications officer.

CTIA hasn’t issued an official statement on the FCC’s proposals, so it is unfair to say categorically that it is opposed to them. However, CTIA is usually very quick out of the gate when it comes to commenting on industry developments.

For example, last Friday, Florida Representative Gus Bilirakis filed an act designed to crack down on the use of contraband mobile phones in prison. CTIA welcomed the move in a statement issued the very same day.

That it has been silent on the FCC’s proposals about the 42 GHz band – despite having more than a weekend to digest the news – speaks volumes. has of course contacted CTIA to ask what its official position is, and will update this story accordingly if and when it hears back.

In the meantime, the FCC will push on with its effort to facilitate shared access to 42 GHz.

Being millimetre-wave (mmWave) frequencies, they lend themselves well to sharing, because its limited propagation capabilities reduce the chances of interference. Signals can be highly-directional and easily blocked by a conveniently-placed wall or window. Not only that, but unlike many other frequency bands, there are currently no incumbent users of 42 GHz, so there are no concerns about harmful interference, and there is no one to compensate in return for shifting them onto adjacent spectrum.

“Our goal here is to come up with a new model to lower barriers, encourage competition and maximise the opportunities in millimetre-wave spectrum. In short, it’s time to be creative,” said FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, in a statement.

The regulator has proffered a few ideas for how shared access would work in practice, and wants industry to weigh in on them.

One method would be for the FCC to offer nationwide licences and commission a third-party database that would keep a record of site deployments. This would ensure that operators coordinate their 42-GHz rollouts to avoid overlap and therefore interference. Alternatively, the FCC might opt to license spectrum on a site-by-site basis, and make information about each site publicly available on its Universal Licensing System (ULS).

Another approach under consideration is referred to as ‘technology-based sensing’. This would require licensees to periodically cease transmission in a given geographic area in order to detect other licensees’ receivers, and then afterwards only transmit in directions where no such receivers are present.

All these approaches potentially facilitate the entry of a new breed of comms provider. Given the popularity of fixed-wireless access (FWA) in the US, there is potential scope for new, lean operators launching highly-targeted offers at specific market segments. Think community broadband, or SME comms services and so-on.

In addition, a hyperscaler like Amazon – which already offers enterprise connectivity solutions that can make use of CBRS spectrum – might also want access to mmWave frequencies without having to go through an operator. Amazon recently denied rumours that it plans to bundle mobile access with Amazon Prime membership “at this time,” but times change, as does the availability or otherwise of 500 MHz of spectrum.

Whatever Amazon’s plans may be, it will be interesting to follow the development of the FCC’s new proposals and even more interesting to see how they are received by incumbent operators.

Get the latest news straight to your inbox. Register for the newsletter here.

Tags: , , ,
  • MWC19 Los Angeles

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.