FCC plans to vote on state-based 4.9 GHz proposal on Sept. 30, Chairman Pai says
FCC commissioners are scheduled to vote Sept. 30 on rules that would let states lease 4.9 GHz spectrum—50 MHz of which currently is designated for public-safety use—to “commercial entities, electric utilities and others,” according to a blog released yesterday by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
Pai outlined the proposal in his monthly blog previewing items on the upcoming FCC meeting. For the Sept. 30 meeting, Pai noted that the proposed agenda calls for commissioners to consider making significant mid-band spectrum available for commercial 5G deployment—namely, the 3.45-3.55 GHz swath and the public-safety 4.9 GHz band.
“Way back in 2002, the FCC designated 50 megahertz of contiguous spectrum in that band for public-safety use,” Pai states in his blog. “Unfortunately, only about 3.5% of potential licensees — less than 1 out of 25 — have actually taken advantage of this spectrum. A barrier to wireless deployment in this band is the unusual licensing framework. Public-safety licensees are permitted to use their spectrum only for public-safety purposes—with no exclusivity—and share the band by ad-hoc coordination to avoid interference.
“In three weeks, the Commission will vote on a Report and Order that would give states the opportunity to lease 4.9 GHz band spectrum to commercial entities, electric utilities, and others. This market-driven path will protect public-safety incumbent operations while providing states the flexibility to use the spectrum to boost wireless broadband, improve critical infrastructure monitoring, or facilitate new public-safety use cases that meet the unique challenges and geographies of each state.”
Pai also indicated that FCC commissioners would propose a “a new state-based licensing regime for public-safety operations in the 4.9 GHz band” in a further notice accompanying the 4.9 GHz order on the agenda. A draft of the proposed 4.9 GHz order is expected to be posted tomorrow on the FCC web site.
Pai’s announcement of the 4.9 GHz order consideration comes one month after the newly formed Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA) called for the 50 MHz of 4.9 GHz spectrum be allocated to the FirstNet Authority, so it could determine the best use of the airwaves for the first-responder community.
Sue Swenson, a PSSA member and former chair of the FirstNet Authority board, said the PSSA representatives anticipated that FCC commissioners might consider initiating some kind of 4.9 GHz proceeding during the Sept. 30 meeting, but they were not expecting a potential vote to reallocate the spectrum.
“We didn’t know that a report and order was coming,” Swenson said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “We had an indication that maybe it was going to be on the agenda for further discussion but not a vote.”
Swenson said the PSSA is “very concerned” with the proposed 4.9 GHz order.
“We would like to see this process thought through a little bit more before an action is taken,” Swenson said. “We’re not averse to whatever outcome makes sense for public safety and the commercial world, but there are just more questions than we have answers to right now … We would just like to see more work done to understand all of the implications for public safety.
“The FCC always has had the best interest of public safety in mind. We’d be happy to work with them on this, to see what makes sense.”
Swenson said that Pai’s description of the state-based 4.9 GHz proposal “seems inconsistent” with the spectrum-allocation philosophy Congress embraced when it established the FirstNet Authority, which was charged with building and maintaining the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN).
“In this case, with us recognizing what public safety has come from—the fragmentation they’ve had in the past—and that we’ve solve that [with the FirstNet approach], this seems like little bit of a detour back to that situation,” Swenson said.
“A lot of thought went into that [legislation that created FirstNet], because there were debates on both sides of that equation—should we have a nationwide [system] or should every state have authority? They said, ‘Look, we’ve had so many issues around interoperability, we’ve tried so many things, and they’ve never worked, so we’re going to go this way.’”
And that model appears to be working for FirstNet, according to Swenson. Being built as a single system by AT&T under a 25-year deal with the FirstNet Authority, the single-system approach has resulted in an on-budget, self-sustaining network that currently is about a year ahead of its scheduled deployment of supporting operations on 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum.
“If what Congress had decided hadn’t worked, I could see why this [4.9 GHz proposal announced by Pai] would make sense,” Swenson said. “But it was debated, it was implemented, it worked and is continuing to work. So, why would you do something different than what’s working? That’s the part that doesn’t make sense to me.”
In 2003, the FCC allocated 50 MHz of nationwide spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band to public safety, which has used the airwaves to support a variety of use cases, from point-to-point backhaul to ad-hoc mesh-networking solutions. However, multiple FCC commissioners have expressed concern that the 4.9 GHz spectrum band is underutilized and should be considered for spectrum-sharing use or a potential commercial auction.
When the FCC established the 4.9 GHz public-safety band, conventional wisdom in the commercial wireless industry was that only spectrum below 3 GHz was useful for mobile applications. However, that sentiment has changed drastically with technology evolutions during the past several years. Today, gaining access to mid-band spectrum—a category that includes 4.9 GHz frequencies—has become a priority for commercial wireless carriers seeking to deploy high-speed 5G networks.
Given these changes within the spectrum arena, Swenson said she believes that the FCC should review its 4.9 GHz order further before taking action.
“We just hope that the FCC would seek out congressional input on this proposal and reconsider it,” Swenson said.
“We have an opportunity to look into the future and do what’s right for the future, instead of looking in the past. I mean, we had so much to overcome before, and—right now—we’ve overcome it. Let’s be smarter this time about how we do it, so we don’t end up with a problem that we have to address again.”