On Aug. 3, 2017, US regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initiated a consultation on ways to expand opportunities for next-generation services in midband spectrum. The aim is to enable the FCC to release spectrum in the 3.7–4.2GHz, 5.925–6.425GHz, and 6.425–7.125GHz bands in the most efficient manner. The consultation is open for comment until Oct. 2, 2017.
Adopting a combination of licensing regimes will be crucial to making the most efficient use of spectrum resources
Over the past few years, the FCC has been looking to release more spectrum to provide operators with the necessary resources to meet the ever-increasing demand from customers for mobile services. Operators desperately need additional spectrum to expand existing network capacity and/or to deploy new technologies such as 5G. The regulator has already made significant progress in making additional spectrum available for wireless services, but up until now it has focused on low-frequency spectrum and bands above 24GHz. However, considering that next-generation wireless networks will require a combination of high-, mid-, and low-band spectrum, attention is now turning to the frequencies at 3.7–24GHz. The public consultation focuses in particular on opening up the midband 3.7–4.2GHz, 5.925–6.425GHz, and 6.425–7.125GHz frequencies for mobile services, but respondents can also suggest other frequencies not in use by the government that may be suitable.
While midband spectrum has a shorter range and poor indoor penetration, these disadvantages have been offset by the use of small cells, combined with the fact that the spectrum offers a large amount of capacity, which makes it ideal for supporting 5G technology. In many markets these frequencies are actually underused or can easily be made available for mobile use by altering incumbent fixed wireless licenses. Several other regulators have already begun exploring using midrange spectrum to deploy 5G, such as those in the EU (3.4–3.8GHz), Japan (3.4–3.5GHz, 3.6–4.2GHz, and 4.4–4.9GHz), South Korea (3.4–3.7GHz), Australia (3.5–3.7GHz), and China (3.3–3.6GHz and 4.8–5GHz).
The consultation raises some key concerns that would need to be addressed before assigning this spectrum to mobile use in the US too. These include protecting existing services from harmful interference and deciding on how to deliver flexible use of the bands to allow the introduction of additional services. The FCC is also looking at existing rules to see if they should be modified to make the bands more suitable for wireless use or even whether some should be removed altogether to reduce the regulatory burden. Finally, the FCC is assessing how best to maximize efficiency of the bands through authorization mechanisms such as exclusive use, nonexclusive use, and unlicensed use.
The combination of different licensing regimes provides mobile operators with greater capacity far more quickly and therefore is an ideal approach for midrange spectrum bands. In particular, the regulator is suggesting intensive fixed or flexible use of the 6.425–7.125 GHz band, an unlicensed regime for the 5.925–6.425GHz, and a framework similar to the 3.5GHz CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) for the 3.7–4.2GHz bands. The Citizens Broadband Radio Service is governed by a three-tiered spectrum authorization framework that accommodates a variety of commercial uses on a shared basis with incumbent federal and non-federal users of the band.
The dominant method used globally by regulators to allocate spectrum to mobile broadband services has entailed assigning exclusively licensed spectrum to specific operators. It will become increasingly important that regulators complement the prevailing approach with alternatives such as shared access under a licensed or unlicensed regime to ensure that the resource is used most efficiently. The FCC has already made considerable strides in adopting alternative licensing regimes. In July 2016, it approved its “Spectrum Frontiers” proceeding, which made spectrum bands above 24GHz available for 5G through exclusive-use licensing, unlicensed access, and shared access schemes. Regulators around the world have also begun to explore alternative licensing regimes, though progress in this regard has been far slower.
US (Country Regulation Overview), TE0007-001145 (May 2017)
Spectrum Requirements for 5G, TE0007-001111 (February 2017)
Sarah McBride, Analyst, Regulation