FCC Spectrum Sharing Plan Could Hold Potential for Enterprises

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By: Larry Loeb|

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The 3.5 GHz band of radio spectrum is currently used solely for specialized purposes, such as for naval radars and satellite ground stations. However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed that it would be better off as a lightly licensed, shared-use band of frequencies to be called the “Citizens Broadband Radio Service.”

The Use Plan for the 3.5 GHz Spectrum

The goal of this plan is to shift spectrum sharing from installations that aren’t efficiently used to ones that foster increased networked communications. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was tasked with finding 500 MHz of spectrum to accommodate mobile broadband, and the FCC notes that this slice of the 3.5 GHz spectrum may aid in that effort. However, the agencies must still come up with a strategy to avoid displacing current users.

Under the FCC’s spectrum sharing plans, users would acquire “Priority Access” licenses that would afford them 10 MHz bands per census tract (areas the size of a town) for a three-year period. These tracts will be for geographic areas where the spectrum is not currently in use. Those with Priority Access would be in the second tier of users, with current incumbents in the first tier. There will also be a third tier, in which any transmitter who checks with a central database of registered users will be able to transmit in areas that are not allocated or occupied.

Setbacks for Wi-Fi and LTE Use

The actual frequencies are located between two bands currently in use for Wi-Fi linking, so that might be the first use that comes to mind. However, this use of the spectrum is problematic — Wi-Fi equipment makers would have to add support for another band on their devices if the spectrum is to be supported. This would add cost to devices, and users would not be guaranteed payback. The geographical exclusions could also cause problems for Wi-Fi adoption, since many consumers may shy away from a device with an uncertain geographic utility.

Another possibility is that phone carriers will want to use the band of frequencies for LTE. This would give operators a bit of breathing room in spectrum use, but the same factors that affect potential Wi-Fi adoption come into play here as well. Handset builders would have to know there would be enough of this specific LTE usage to justify the additional cost of hardware that would need to be added to the handset. Further, the same standoff could occur in LTE as might occur in Wi-Fi. Carriers and handset makers would watch the other to see what they are doing. There is no guarantee their efforts would coordinate or end up with the use of this spectrum.

Spectrum Sharing Holds Potential for Enterprises

It may well be that a specialized enterprise use case would make the most sense for these frequencies. Enterprises have learned to use scarce spectrum for their machine-to-machine communications, so this reallocation might follow the same course. For example, hospitals or factories may look at the band for internal communications between networked devices. The number of devices using the band would be lower than a mass-market item such as a Wi-Fi router or phone handset.

Network management of the business would be affected, of course, but devices for high-profit industrial use of this spectrum would have a greater chance of being successfully developed. Plus, many enterprises might value access to a spectrum that is subject to less interference from other users.

At this point, there is no clear path forward for the 3.5 GHz band. The use of the new spectrum will likely end up as a business decision that will play out over time, but enterprises that are in the market for a less-crowded network solution may want to keep tabs on the situation as it continues to develop.

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