FCC chief to propose spectrum-sharing rules

The move is the latest step in a longstanding plan to put 500 MHz of federal and non-federal spectrum into private hands.

large broadcasting antenna

The Federal Communications Commission will soon propose rules of the road for spectrum sharing.

In a few years, this could mean big changes to the federal spectrum footprint, and more capacity to fuel the country's growing demand for wireless connectivity. The move is the latest step in a longstanding Obama administration plan to put 500 MHz of federal and non-federal spectrum into private hands, to expand the power and reach of high-speed wireless broadband.

Under a sharing regime, wide swathes of spectrum would be doled out dynamically. The new rules would give federal users and non-federal licensees first dibs on access to spectrum that is shared out, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said at a March 24 event on spectrum management at the Brookings Institution. Holders of priority access licenses would have the next crack, followed by non-licensed users.

"We are evolving spectrum policy from the age of Marconi’s analog waveform to the era of digital on-off pulses that obviate the previous underpinnings of policy: the nature of the waveform, and the need for a large spectrum buffer to protect it from other signals," Wheeler said.

Wheeler helped develop the policy as an expert contributor to a July 2012 report of the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. That report found that the wholesale clearing and reallocating of federally held spectrum would be expensive, disruptive, and take too long to implement. A memorandum from President Barack Obama followed about a year later, which among other things charged the FCC with fashioning rules by which licensed services and unlicensed devices could share spectrum.

Wheeler said the sharing rules would include a "single, highly flexible band plan," to allow for large swathes of spectrum to be pooled without restrictive use rules that apply to particular frequencies. The proposed rules would "anticipate a wide range of flexible uses," he said, including small cell networks like Wi-Fi that can deliver connectivity across a very small geographic area.

The FCC would maintain a dynamic spectrum database to make sure priority access is doled out appropriately, and to facilitate the auction and licensing of available bandwidth. In tandem, the FCC would convene industry, researchers and other stakeholders around efforts to design specifications for transmitters and receivers to operate in a shared-spectrum environment.

The FCC is also exploring the technical aspects of dynamic spectrum sharing in a swath of the 3.5 GHz band. That effort, "provides a real-life opportunity to apply some bold thinking about receiver performance," Wheeler said.

The pace of the FCC’s program is deliberate, but a lot of change is on the horizon in the world of spectrum. TV broadcasters are being invited to cash in their spectrum licenses in a dual-auction proceeding that is set for 2015. In addition, the Defense Department is planning to share a swath of spectrum in the 1755-1780 MHz band that is coveted by large mobile providers in part because that spectrum is in wide commercial use internationally.

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