US regulator expected to decide soon on 12 GHz band
Those in favor of opening up the 12 GHz band for terrestrial use are hopeful that the US regulator will make a decision by mid-year.
Members of the 5G for 12 GHz coalition have welcomed recent comments made by Jessica Rosenworcel, chair of US regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Rosenworcel told lawmakers in late March that the FCC was looking into the band but described it as one of the “most complex” issues the agency was dealing with.
The 12.2—12.7 GHz band is primarily used by satellite operators such as DISH and RS Access. These companies hold multichannel video distribution and data service (MVDDS) licenses as well as direct broadcast satellite (DBS) TV licenses. These were sold at various auctions over ten years ago.
Many of the original licensees are hoping the FCC will change the license conditions of the band to allow the 12 GHz band to be used for terrestrial use. This would open up the possibility of using the frequencies for mobile broadband, including 5G. The FCC released a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) early last year which considers this change, but it has yet to make a decision on the band.
Non-geostationary satellite operators such as SpaceX disagree with the proposal. SpaceX uses the band for its low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite broadband service. The company says its services cannot co-exist with terrestrial services in the band as this would have an “enormous detrimental effect” on its services.
Chip Pickering is a former congressman and CEO of the telecoms trade group Incompas, which is advocating for the band to be opened up. He accuses SpaceX of being obstructive in a bid to “maintain the status quo”.
“We believe that coexistence [with SpaceX] is possible,” says Pickering. “We have done extensive simulated engineering studies that show dual-use without harmful interference is possible.”
Pickering wants the band to be used to provide 5G services. He says it is unique due to its high bandwidth (500 MHz), lack of federal incumbent users and superior propagation characteristics compared to existing mmWave bands. “We believe 12 GHz is the Goldilocks of spectrum,” says Pickering.
Jeff Blum, who oversees public policy at satellite TV and mobile operator Dish, also wants to see the FCC open up the band. Dish is a satellite TV operator that is currently building its own 5G network to become the country’s fourth network operator. Blum says the company hopes to use its extensive holdings in the 12 GHz band to supplement this network.
“[The 12 GHz band] has been used by Dish and DirecTV since the mid-90s,” says Blum. “For Dish it is the primary satellite TV band. We have over eight million satellite TV subscribers and over a dozen satellites that use 12 GHz.”
Dish is in a unique position as it relies on the band for satellite operations but also wants it used for terrestrial services. The company is confident that co-existence is possible. “We are the primary user of 12 GHz,” says Blum. “We are the ones that need to be protected.”
When will the FCC act?
Although the FCC has published an NPRM, the agency is under no obligation to make a decision on this issue. Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, says he is hopeful the agency will make a decision this year. Public Knowledge is a non-profit which supports the liberalization of the 12 GHz band.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on the FCC to find more spectrum,” says Feld. “Not just for 5G, but we’re now already talking about 6G, we’re talking about WiFi 7. All of these are going to need new spectrum in order to be successfully deployed.”
Pickering also believes the FCC will act soon. He is hopeful that the agency will “move forward” with a decision on the band by the middle of the year.
What shape will future rules take?
If the FCC does decide to open up the 12 GHz band, it will first need to iron out specific rules. The agency has several questions it needs to consider.
Firstly, it needs to decide whether it will award licenses for the band at auction or allow current license holders to keep their licenses. Dish currently holds most of the licenses in the band and the company is unlikely to want to give them up. Feld argues that it would be better for competition if Dish maintains its licenses and emerges as the country’s fourth network operator.
Secondly, the FCC will need to decide whether to issue exclusive licenses for the band or to allow spectrum sharing with unlicensed users. Feld says he prefers a spectrum sharing solution.
“We’ve argued that the rules that the FCC adopted in the 6 GHz band, which are now the basis of WiFi 6E, could be used in the 12 GHz band,” says Feld. “That would add another 500 MHz of spectrum for WiFi and other unlicensed uses.” However, Dish and other incumbent license holders will likely prefer an exclusive license to avoid any interference risks.