FCC Chair’s Remarks Buoy Campaign To Open 12 GHz Band
It was music to some wireless industry advocates’ ears when federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel told lawmakers in recent days that her agency was still strongly weighing whether to open up the 12 GHz band for terrestrial wireless use.
Calling it “one of the most complex dockets we have” from an engineering perspective, Rosenworcelsaid a decision on the satellite-dominated band’s future will take time. But despite the caveat, supporters of sharing the spectrum felt optimistic after her remarks that a remake of 12 GHz remains on the horizon.
“We believe the proceeding is gaining momentum,” said Chip Pickering, a former congressman who heads the telecom trade group Incompas and has helped lead a broad advocacy effort to open up the midband spectrum for two-way terrestrial wireless.
Pickering told Law360 that lawmakers are increasingly in on the action, as reflected in bipartisan questions on 12 GHz to Rosenworcel during a recent House Energy and Commerce oversight hearing. “There’s a lot of interest on the Hill,” he said Wednesday.
Rosenworcel signaled that the FCC could eventually be amenable to adding wireless services to the12 GHz band. Comments opened on the docket toward the end of her predecessor Ajit Pai’s tenure and closed last summer. The record, brimming with technical studies that show a lack of interference with satellites, but also with filings opposed to the plan anyway, examines adding new services to a swath of 500 megahertz between 12.2 and 12.7 GHz.
“The 12 GHz band historically has had fixed satellite systems in it, it has had direct broadcast satellite, and it has had multichannel video data distribution systems, and now we might want to add mobile broadband to the mix,” Rosenworcel told the House panel.
“As you might imagine, that’s going to take a lot of technical work to make sure that the airwaves can accommodate all those different uses without harmful interference,” she added.
Up Against SpaceX
The initiative to open up 12 GHz is not without its detractors, not least of them Elon Musk’s SpaceX, whose Starlink operation uses the midband spectrum for its satellite broadband signals. Along with other industry players that already use the band, such as OneWeb, the company has come out swinging against the campaign to share it with terrestrial 5G.
SpaceX contends that mobile and satellite services can’t share the band without causing harmful interference to incumbent operators, saying in one recent filing after meeting with the FCC that”high-power mobile would blow out the satellite users” who are forced to operate at low power to accommodate other users.
The satellite company told the FCC in March that even Dish Network Corp., a proponent of sharing the 12 GHz band, is aware that the commission “has repeatedly recognized that terrestrial mobile services and ubiquitously deployed satellite services cannot share a frequency band.”
SpaceX also argues that other authorized users of the band, multichannel video distribution and data services, or MVDDS, have only gotten behind the initiative because they hope to reap a “windfall” from opening the band to new users — a claim they deny. Representatives for SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jeff Blum, executive vice president of Dish and head of its policy arm, told Law360 on Wednesday that the satellite broadcaster backs 12 GHz spectrum-sharing so long as the technical analyses pan out, which is among the biggest things on the FCC’s plate.
Blum rejected the SpaceX contention that industry backers of the campaign, who have formed what’s known as the 5G for 12 GHz Coalition, are aiming for speculation on portions of the airwaves.”Starlink’s core position is that there should be no 5G use of the band,” Blum said. He added that while the SpaceX subsidiary uses “the speculator talking point,” Dish “strongly disagrees with that” because it’s a matter of good public policy.
“It’s not a binary choice,” Blum said. “We don’t want to fight with SpaceX. We want to work with them.”
Blum said it was encouraging to hear Rosenworcel make a commitment on the Hill to the engineering studies that would undergird an FCC action in the near future. “There’s not a lot of midband spectrum left,” he said. “We see 12 GHz as a unique opportunity for the FCC to update the rules to allow [5G].”
FCC Chief Treads Cautiously
Wading with caution into the issue, Rosenworcel declined lawmakers’ invitation to say with certainty whether the FCC would move on 5G with the jury still out on interference. But even while remaining noncommittal, she made clear that the agency’s engineering staff was hard at work on the issue.
She pointed out that the FCC has data from the International Telecommunications Union, but the information is 30 years old.
“We have satellite policies we’re going to have to update,” she said. “And once we identify harmful interference, we’ll have to model what it looks like and try to come up with standards for where satellite terminals can be compared to 5G systems. These issues, to be candid, will take time, but they take time because they’re really important and we need to do them well.”
The potential was clear for more friction on Capitol Hill between nongeostationary satellite operators and new 5G users over commission policy toward 12 GHz. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., who hails from a central Florida district that hosts SpaceX operations, told Rosenworcel that “sometimes we see speculators that are proposing to repurpose the [band]” and that “it would be great to hear of your continued support for this critical spectrum use by satellite systems.”
Rosenworcel told Soto the issue was “as complex as any proceeding before the agency” but that she”can assure you that we have our best engineers assessing this right now and we can continue to keep you updated as we proceed.”
V. Noah Campbell, co-founder and CEO of RS Access, a major holder of licenses in the 12 GHz band, said Wednesday that proponents of using the spectrum for wireless took the FCC’s mandate to provide technical studies “very seriously.”
“We put really, really compelling evidence into the record” to show that 5G can co-exist in the band without interfering with existing users, but that contrasted with criticism from opponents, Campbell said. “They effectively said ‘we don’t like these guys.'”
Advocates for opening 12 GHz “were really encouraged to hear the chair’s remarks related to having the best engineers working on it,” Campbell said. “We’re happy to participate in that process in a way that’s constructive.”
“The question is always, where do we find the next frequency?” he added. “Over time it’s gotten to be much more difficult [as] the demand for mobile data is really, really high.”
Proponents for greater use of the band sandwiched between 12.2 and 12.7 GHz call it the”Goldilocks” of spectrum because it is essentially greenfield, a 500-Mhz contiguous block in the midband unencumbered by federal users, which have spelled trouble for adding 5G in other sections of the airwaves. They also say it can be made available quickly without the need for an auction.
“The world needs spectrum. It’s finite. It’s hard to find,” Campbell said. “Globally, because of this sort of push-and-pull around data demand and frequency, [policymakers] are all in agreement that we need to be really creative.”
Pickering, of Incompas, drew optimism from Rosenworcel’s assurance that the FCC is still working on the initiative, which has support from some public-interest groups as well. He predicted that once the FCC gains a full membership — the U.S. Senate is still considering a White House nominee, Gigi Sohn— it will forge ahead on 12 GHz.
“We believe there will be action,” he said. “We’re confident that as we get through the first quarter of this year, and we look at the next two to three months, we should be able to reach resolution and move the proceeding in the first half of this year.”