FCC considers public safety, IoT spectrum needs

The Federal Communications Commission is taking a new look at the spectrum needs of public safety and the internet of things, and the agency officially rescinded rules passed under the Trump administration that would have allowed state-by-state leasing of 50 megahertz of spectrum at 4.9 GHz.

Those rules had been stayed in June of this year. The background here is that in the fall of 2020, the FCC voted along party lines to expand the use of the 4.9 GHz band, over objections from public safety users. The 4.9 GHz spectrum, which consists of 50 megahertz (4.940-4.990 GHz), was designated for exclusive use by public safety for fixed and mobile services back in the early 2000s. That spectrum was allowed to be shared with non-traditional public safety responders. Under the Trump administration and then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC voted to drop the requirement that the spectrum be used for public safety-related activities. The GOP majority on the commission supported the view that due to the high cost of equipment in the band and the fact that its use is mostly confined to a few metropolitan areas, the spectrum was underutilized and states ought to be allowed to use it to “best meet their unique needs,” as the FCC said in a statement. Those leasing rules would have allow a single, statewide licensee in each state to lease some or all of its spectrum rights to third parties, either public safety or non-public safety, commercial and private entities.

Under the Biden administration and Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, the agency has now decided to “move towards establishment of a nationwide, coordinated framework that would emphasize public safety needs while increasing overall use of the band and putting public safety on a path to 5G.” A new notice of proposed rulemaking will consider how new technologies like 5G and dynamic Spectrum Access Systems (SAS) could be used for co-existence at 4.9 GHz. Rosenworcel and fellow Democrat Commissioner Geoffrey Starks approved the measure along with Commissioner Nathan Simington, a Republican; Republican Brendan Carr approved in part and concurred in part.

“I was disappointed when the FCC voted to take the 50 MHz at 4.9 GHz off the board earlier this year by staying our 2020 decision,” Carr said in a statement. “I dissented from that decision, but as I said at the time, I am open to working with my colleagues, the public safety community, and all other stakeholders on a new framework for this important band of spectrum. … Our 2020 decision was
certainly not the only way to ensure that the 4.9 GHz spectrum can be put to good use.”

Some public safety advocates have called for the 4.9 GHz spectrum to be assigned to the First Responders Network Authority and used to bolster FirstNet access and services for public safety users, on the network built by AT&T. Other industry players, like the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, have said that the underutilized band ought to be opened for wider commercial use.

Both AT&T and WISPA indicated their support for the expanded conversation around operations at 4.9 GHz.

“The 4.9 GHz band is a critical band for public safety and could provide key support for future 5G public safety deployments. We appreciate the FCC’s focus on avoiding fragmentation and expanding the usefulness of the band for public safety,” said Joan Marsh, AT&T EVP of federal regulatory relations.

Louis Peraertz, VP of policy for WISPA, said the organization will continue to work for commercial use in the band. “Limiting the band to critical information industry entities in a severely spectrum-constrained world would keep that spectrum significantly underutilized.  More such spectrum for commercial use means more internet access for those Americans in the hardest to reach and serve areas of the country,” Peraertz said in a statement. “In addition, allowing commercial use of the band would encourage a more robust market for equipment and greater innovation that could also benefit public safety communications.”

The FCC also opened up public comment on the spectrum needs for the Internet of Things, seeking input on whether there is adequate spectrum is available for the anticipated growth of IoT, and if not, how to make sure that enough spectrum gets set aside, as well what the role of unlicensed and licensed spectrum are likely to be in the future of IoT in the United States. The agency had been directed by Congress to open up the inquiry.

While IoT use cases are already emerging, Rosenworcel said in a statement, it’s “only the start.”

“As 5G wireless systems and low Earth orbiting satellites expand the availability of high-speed and high-capacity networks, we can expect the pace of innovation to increase,” she continued. “Of course, for this to happen we need to make sure that adequate spectrum is available for all of this activity. …
These are important questions and I hope and expect the record will produce thoughtful answers.”

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