FCC commissioners yesterday unanimously initiated a proceeding to examine potential new rules that might spur greater use of the 4.9 GHz spectrum band currently dedicated to public safety, including various spectrum-sharing schemes and the possibility of redesignating the airwaves for commercial use.

Several FCC commissioners noted that less than 4% of potential licensees use the 4.9 GHz band, which the FCC designated for public-safety use in 2002 and has since been the subject of several policy revisions in hopes of encouraging greater adoption and innovation. But none of these changes have been effective to date, and the clear consensus among FCC commissioners expressed yesterday is that the 4.9 GHz spectrum has been underutilized.

That circumstance needs to change, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Considering the massive demand for mobile services and the consequently massive demand for spectrum, reserving a lightly used 4.9 GHz band isn't an option,” Pai said during the FCC meeting, which was webcast. “That's why today's sixth further notice [about the 4.9 GHz band] is important.

“Our goals here 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 that we consider here—from aggregating channels into larger blocks to facilitate broadband use to opening the door to more spectrum sharing.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said that such potential policy revisions for the 4.9 GHz band are worthy of review, but he believes removing the public-safety designation from the airwaves makes more sense.

“In light of the underutilization of this band by public safety for non-public-safety purposes and the relative progress of FirstNet, I would argue—and I know some of my colleagues agree with this—that it is time to redesignate this valuable spectrum for commercial use,” O’Rielly said. “Today's notice provides the opportunity to contemplate whether this spectrum, which is located close approximately to the 5 GHz unlicensed band, should be allocated for unlicensed or licensed use.”

O’Rielly said the FCC likely will need to consider redesignating the 4.9 GHz band for commercial use more seriously, because the omnibus federal spending bill that recently passed the House—and later would receive Senate approval—calls for new spectrum to be identified and auctioned for commercial use.

“We need to recognize that the current Mobile Now bill, which is set to become law in a scant few days, requires the commission and NTIA to identify 255 MHz of federal and non-federal spectrum for fixed and mobile broadband, with at least 100 MHz under 8 GHz for unlicensed use, and 100 MHz under 6 GHz for licensed service,” O’Rielly said. “It is likely that the 4.9 GHz spectrum band would be needed to reach these spectrum totals.

“In sum, this spectrum is underutilized and, as such, I've advocated in other circumstances—such as the DSRC in the 5.9 band—that it is time to reconsider and correct past mistakes before another decade goes by.”