The FCC’s 12 GHz Decision

One of the hardest things that the FCC does is to decide spectrum policy. The agency has full authority to determine the details of how we use each slice of available spectrum. Most importantly, the agency can determine who can use spectrum – and that’s why the task is challenging.

In the last decade, it’s hard to think of any spectrum deliberation and decision that didn’t have to weigh the interests of multiple spectrum users. There is almost always somebody using spectrum that must be considered. The FCC must decide if there is more national benefit in allowing others to use the spectrum, and in doing so, the FCC has to decide if the current users can somehow stay in place. If not, the FCC has to find existing users a new slice of spectrum and cover the cost of moving existing users to the new frequencies.

There are multiple users of spectrum that want more spectrum than they have today. Probably first on this list are the cellular carriers who say they need scads more spectrum to keep up with the demands of our connected world. Satellite carriers are now clamoring for spectrum as they continue to add more users onto satellite broadband – and as they contemplate launching IoT and cellular services. The U.S. government and the military insist on having bands of spectrum for a wide variety of uses. WISPs want more spectrum for rural broadband. The companies that make WiFi equipment want more free spectrum for public use. Then there are the important niche players like connected automobiles, GPS, weather satellites, etc.

Finally, as odd as it sounds, there are also investors who have purchased spectrum in the past and who lobby the FCC to increase the value of their ownership – only in America would this be one of the underlying reasons to deliberate on the use of spectrum.

The recent FCC decision on the use of the lower 12 GHz spectrum is a good example of the FCC deliberation process on spectrum. This spectrum sits in the middle of the range of spectrum that the FCC recently dubbed as 6G. This spectrum has great characteristics – it can carry a lot of data while still being transmitted for decent distances. In general, the higher the frequency, the shorter the effective distance of a broadcast transmission.

This spectrum has been used for satellite broadband connections. At the prompting of others in the industry, the FCC decided to investigate if there are other ways to use this spectrum to satisfy more national needs.

  • Dell owned a lot of the 12 GHz spectrum and was lobbying to expand the use of the spectrum to improve its value.
  • DISH was hoping to use the 12 GHz spectrum as part of its nationwide roll-out of a new cellular network.
  • The other big cell companies jumped in with the suggestion that the spectrum be sold at auction for FWA broadband.
  • WISPs jumped in and suggested they could coexist with the other users and use the spectrum for rural broadband.
  • The WiFi coalition asked that the spectrum be allowed for free indoor usage.

As is usual in FCC spectrum proceedings, the various parties all filed testimony from experts that demonstrated that their proposed use could work. In this case, many of the proposals tried to show that the FCC could order terrestrial use of the spectrum without interfering with satellite base stations. The experts on both sides of the argument said that the arguments on the other side were incorrect.

The spectrum engineers at the FCC are left to somehow glean the truth from the conflicting arguments. Meanwhile, the FCC commissioners have to wrangle with the policy and lobbying aspects of the issue since all of the players do their best to bring pressure to bear on such FCC decisions.

The FCC decision was that the lower 12 GHz spectrum should continue to be used for satellite backhaul. The big winner in the decision was Starlink, and the biggest loser was DISH.

But the FCC left the door open to other uses and will continue its investigation. The FCC is still interested in hearing more about the use for point-to-point and point-to-multipoint wireless connections. That would serve as backhaul between towers and could be used to connect FWA and WISP customers. The FCC is also willing to consider the free unlicensed use of the spectrum for indoor use. So, as is often the case, the debate continues.

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