U.S. regulators mull national spectrum strategy that emphasizes sharing

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WASHINGTON — As the Federal Communications Commission nears a decision on the use of C-band satellite spectrum, it and several other U.S. agencies are weighing a broader strategy for the nation’s spectrum.

That strategy would emphasize sharing airwaves as a means to allow more users to access finite spectrum resources.

“For a long time we’ve been looking for clearing for exclusive use,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s wireless and international adviser Rachael Bender said June 12 during a National Telecommunications and Information Administration panel discussion. “That’s still a goal of ours, but there’s not a lot left. We are going to have to go with these types of ‘sharing from the beginning’ ideas and regimes, and that’s the way we are going to be able to get more spectrum as we balance our federal and nonfederal partners. I think that we don’t have a choice.”

The FCC is not “holding the pen” on the new strategy, Bender said, but instead wants to collaborate with multiple federal partners. The strategy would be a “living document” that can adapt over time to new technologies, she said.

Kelsey Guyselman, the White House’s telecom policy adviser at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, gave a mild endorsement to crafting a comprehensive national strategy, calling it “an important thought to consider.”

“There’s fewer and fewer opportunities for just outright clearing and reallocation for exclusive use,” she said. “I think that’s something we are going to have to pivot and really focus on how to make use of what we have.”

U.S. telecom regulators are striving to free up spectrum for 5G, the next generation of mobile networks, as companies like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon prepare to rollout super-high-speed networks. At the center of the FCC’s crosshairs for new 5G spectrum is C-band, specifically a 500 MHz swath from 3.7 to 4.2 GHz that satellite operators use.

“From our perspective, 5G is the big focus,” said Tom Power, senior vice president and general counsel of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. The U.S. appears to be trailing behind South Korea and China in the development of 5G, he said. “There are spectrum bands, particularly mid-band, that we would be focused on in a national spectrum strategy.”

The FCC plans to vote in July on ways to open up the 500 MHz of U.S. C-band that satellite operators use.  

Intelsat and SES, two operators that have rights to more than 90 percent of satellite C-band spectrum in the U.S., have together with Intel proposed to yield 100 MHz of the band on an as-needed basis for 5G use in exchange for compensation by mobile network operators. Whether 100 MHz is enough to satisfy mobile demand remains to be seen.

The satellite industry has argued against spectrum sharing for decades, saying that cellular signals overpower satellite signals, creating insurmountable interference. Tom Stroup, president of the Washington-based Satellite Industry Association, cautioned about the difficulty of having multiple users in the same bands.

“It’s far easier for new entrants to be able to develop their system to be able to share with the incumbents than for the incumbents go back and try and retrofit their systems,” he said. “I think building to share is definitely a policy that should be examined closely as we move into a greater sharing environment.”

Guyselman said that while some spectrum bands can be cleared of incumbent users, that process is expensive and time-consuming.

“Given the pace that we are moving with wireless, it’s really important that we act quickly, and in many instances sharing is going to be a way to get to those goals,” she said.  

Bender said the FCC wants to balance protection of government users with freeing up spectrum for commercial deployment. She added that “part of the 5G strategy has to be satellite,” despite the larger focus on its importance for cellular communications.

Stroup said there are several ways satellite communications will support 5G, such as connecting planes, boats, cars and buildings not reached by cellular networks. Satellites can also link 5G cells back to network infrastructure when beyond the reach of fiber.