FCC Launching Inquiry to Examine Sharing C-Band Spectrum

Remember those huge 10-foot dishes that popularized home (mostly rural) satellite TV reception?

When the Federal Communications Commission launches its Notice of Inquiry on Wednesday (Aug. 2) into the fate of the mid-band spectrum, it will unleash arguments about the role that C-band technology -- the airwaves used for the decades-old satellite video signals -- plays in rural connectivity and other "opportunities for next-generation...wireless broadband" services.

"Under-utilized" is the term that has popped up most frequently in the ramp-up to the forthcoming proceeding. In fact, the FCC's August meeting agenda, which includes the C-band issue, comes just prior to the deadline for comments on a petition, filed in June, from the Broadband Access Coalition which seeks to "modernize" rules that would enable the use of the 3700 to 4200 MHz (3.7 to 4.2 GHz) band for licensed Point-to-Multipoint Fixed wireless broadband service.

The petition, filed by the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, the Open Technology Institute at New America (formerly New America Foundation) and Mimosa Networks Inc., contended that new rules can protect incumbent fixed satellite service (FSS) operations while allowing other fixed broadband providers to provide "near-gigabit broadband in rural and underserved areas, fill urban connectivity gaps, and promote competition among ISPs in suburban and other areas as well."

In its advance notice about the propose NoI, the FCC said it recognizes the "growing need for additional spectrum for flexible wireless use" and that the new examination "bridges the gap" between previous actions involving low-frequency and high-frequency bands.

The agency said it intends to determine "whether spectrum in this range can be made available for wireless broadband use and will explore various options for doing so." The FCC examination will include a review of "potential opportunities in the mid-range bands allocated for exclusive non-federal use and for shared federal and nonfederal use."

The FCC said it "will work closely with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to evaluate the potential operational impacts, costs, benefits, and resource considerations associated with any new or expanded non-federal use of shared allocations."

According to the FCC's advance notification, the NoI will seek detailed information about three mid-range bands: 3.7-4.2 GHz; 5.925-6.425 GHz; and 6.425-7.125 GHz "that have already garnered interest from stakeholders—both domestically and internationally—for expanded flexible use." It will also seek comments on other "suitable" flexible use of the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, and look for "long-term strategies that would enhance efficiency and promote flexible use" while protecting existing non-federal services.

Preparing for a Fight
The petition to "modernize" midband uses is expected to face "opposition (or at least great skepticism) from FSS and mobile/cellular" organizations, Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America (formerly New America Foundation), told Multichannel News. He said that those companies want the 3.7 GHz band to be auctioned for exclusive mobile licensing, although others contend that mobile carriers have lost their appetite (and wallets) for buying spectrum.

The newly formed Broadband Access Coalition, which filed the petition, consists of about two dozen organizations, including equipment makers, wireless Internet Service Providers and advocacy groups (such Public Knowledge and the Consumer Federation of America). In its petition, the Coalition pointed out that last year there were only 10 new registrations and licenses issued in the C-band, and only a few dozen each year for the previous two years. That is down from 900 to 1,000 per year in the early 1990s, when C-band dishes where sprouting like mushrooms across rural areas.

The FCC's new proposed spectrum inquiry also comes on the heels of the recent Microsoft proposal to use broadcast white spaces spectrum (in the 600 MHz band) for rural connectivity. Although that plan seeks to serve a similar rural audience initially, the capabilities of the lower and mid-band spectrum segments are significantly different, according to technology analysts.

A seminar last week in Washington organized by the Open Technology Institute at New America focused on "shared spectrum as a fiber extension," with special attention to rural applications. New America characterized its program as focusing on "the feasibility of sharing the FSS band and [showing] how wireless fiber can immediately enable more affordable high-speed connections to homes, small businesses, libraries and other institutions."

Andrew Clegg, spectrum engineer lead at Google, said that the 3.7-4.2 GHz spectrum "can be used more intensively," pointing out that it has more bandwidth than the combined range of 600 MHz, 700MHz, AWS and other frequencies that the FCC has recently auctioned. He said it is "possible to get limited use for mobile in the band," acknowledging that, "As the band evolves, there will be more opportunity for mobile services."

Repeating the mantra of the seminar, Kalpak Gude, president of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance and a former satellite video executive, said, "The ways that satellites now use C-band leaves spectrum underutilized." He said that the ways "we make spectrum more available" is the major question, noting that he doesn't believe "clearing and auctions" are the best options.

"We need a better understanding of the actual use" and in the longer term "a dynamic approach will drive more utilization," Gude said. "Technology is already available."

As for the looming fight with mobile carriers who see uses for this spectrum, Gude said it will be "a battle to delay the inevitable." He expects that eventual regulation will "protect incumbent" FSS providers but not grandfather all users.

"Sharing is the wave of the future," Gude said. "It benefits all side of the equation."

And as a reminder of Google's all-knowing role in the telecom ecosystem, Clegg also explained how his company is using its tools for finding out just about anything, including where those old C-band satellite dishes are located. He described how the company has used its Google Earth geomapping technology in connection with its review of satellite dish construction permits.

"Twenty-nine percent of the sites were never built of have been removed," Clegg said. "We can tell from imaging (if) dishes are there," but he has no way of knowing if they are unused or just rusting away.

He reminded seminar attendees that Google and others have "very detailed information" about buildings, foliage and other features that will affect the propagation of signals in the soon-to-be-contested spectrum.

Photo by VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

This blog was updated on Aug. 2 to fix the reference to 10-foot diameter satellite dishes. 

Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.