US Regulator May “Imminently” Propose Reshuffling The 900 MHz Band

by Toby Youell Research Analyst

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to propose a reorganisation of privately held licences in the band to create contiguous spectrum for next-generation smart grid broadband services.

These frequencies are typically used globally for mobile broadband, but in the US a 2 x 5 MHz portion of the band (896–901 and 935–940 MHz) is divided into an overlapping patchwork of narrowband and broadband licences. A company founded by former Nextel executives, pdvWireless, hopes these licences will be separated so that the lower 2 x 2 MHz (896–898/935–937 MHz) can be used for narrowband services and the top 2 x 3 MHz (898–901/937–940 MHz) for broadband services. But this change would require the FCC to change the rules for how the band is managed.

In time, pdvWireless wants to be able to use the full 2 x 5 MHz, while also providing solutions for incumbents to continue providing services that rely on these frequencies.

Next generation smart grids

In 2014, pdvWireless acquired licences for the majority of the band for most of the US markets from Sprint, the country’s fourth-largest mobile operator. The company wants to use these licences to provide broadband services for the next generation of smart grids.

“We believe that the optimum use of this precious amount of spectrum is to facilitate utilities going to the next technology–LTE,” pdvWireless CEO Morgan O’Brien told PolicyTracker. For example, this could allow a utility to install equipment that could detect a falling electricity pole and immediately deactivate it before it can cause a fire when it hits the ground. The radio equipment for these applications is already available (Band 8), he explained, meaning that the spectrum could be put to use “the day we get our licence from the FCC”.

Unlike in other regions, the 450 MHz band is not available in the US for smart grids.

The infrastructure itself would be deployed by utilities that would lease spectrum from pdvWireless, O’Brien explained. Leasing the spectrum to mobile operators is also a possibility.

Regulatory intervention

So far, the company has not been able to cajole the interleaved narrowband licensees in the band to reorganise themselves to allow uninhibited use of this 2 x 5 MHz band.

Peter Tenhula, the acting associate administrator at the Office of Spectrum Management of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, told the Phoenix Center’s annual US telecoms symposium that this is in part due to the principal agent problem. It is not necessarily in the interests of spectrum managers to implement a trade–they may not personally benefit from the deal and may even find themselves unemployed–and more senior officials often do not understand anything about spectrum. O’Brien also attributed utility companies’ unresponsiveness to their size.

This lack of coordination contrasts with the 3.7–4.2 GHz band, where a consortium of satellite operators that use the band are working together to change their use of the band so as to allow mobile operators to use 200+ MHz of spectrum. The future chief of the FCC’s Office of Economics and Analytics, Giulia McHenry, praised the idea of market-led and expedient change.

The contrast inspired Hank Hultquist, vice president for federal regulatory at mobile operator AT&T, to paraphrase the opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. “Under-utilised spectrum bands are all alike, but every under-utilised spectrum band is under-utilised in its own way,” he said.

O’Brien thinks this problem should be overcome through FCC intervention. He told PolicyTracker that other licence holders in the band “need the FCC to step in and say ‘there’s a greater good, meaning more economic value, in having broadband spectrum rather than narrowband spectrum so we’re not going to let you–just because of your convenience factor–stand in the way of us making some of this spectrum available for broadband use”.

He emphasised that licences issued by the FCC can have their frequencies changed by the regulator. “There’s a long history of incumbents being required to swap frequencies to clear a band,” he said.

Imminent rulemaking?

pdvWireless and the Enterprise Wireless Alliance petitioned the FCC along these lines in 2014. Three years later, the FCC published a Notice of Inquiry on such changes.

The FCC decided to freeze the band for new applications in September this year so it can “preserve the current landscape of authorized operations in the 900 MHz band pending Commission action as part of its ongoing inquiry into potential rule changes to promote next generation technologies and services in the band”.

“Targeted changes” to the band were also mentioned in the FCC’s Plan to Facilitate America’s Superiority in 5G Technology, released in September.

“We are optimistic that the next stage in our proceeding, a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, is imminent,” O’Brien said.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than working through a process like this,” O’Brien told the symposium. “At the end of the day, the FCC does the right thing, the smart thing, and pushes the boundaries. Hopefully this time I won’t be disappointed.”

© PolicyTracker 2018