FCC moves to open radar spectrum to commercial uses

The sharing plan could lead to innovation in small cell technology, FCC officials say

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has voted to move forward on plans to have the U.S. military share wireless spectrum in the 3.5GHz band with commercial users.

The FCC on Wednesday voted to approve a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, to allow small cells to operate in the 3.5GHz band, now used by high-power military radar services.

The proposed citizens broadband service would include 100MHz from the 3.5GHz band and another 50MHz from the 3.6GHz band, which is now used by wireless Internet service providers.

In an NPRM, the FCC proposed new rules and asked for public comment on them. The FCC late Wednesday also moved to make another 50MHz of spectrum available for commercial mobile uses.

The U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) first recommended in 2010 that the FCC look at sharing in the 3.5GHz spectrum, but the plan received a cool reception because high-band spectrum isn't generally seen as good for mobile broadband and because radar uses would limit the use of the spectrum in many areas.

However, in July, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), an advisory group to President Barack Obama,

pushed spectrum sharing
, including the 3.5GHz band, as a way to deal with upcoming spectrum shortages.

Because of the PCAST recommendations, "rather than discarding this spectrum as junk, we are staring at new opportunities for small cells," said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "This is a big deal."

The 3.5GHz band could drive new innovations in small cell technology, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. "We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this is a 100 megahertz proceeding," he said. "This has enormous potential for the country."

Under the FCC proposal, military radar users would have priority on the shared spectrum, with protection from interference. A second group of users, including hospitals and public safety agencies, would have the second highest priority, with other commercial uses subject to interference from the two priority groups. The FCC proposes to use a spectrum use database to prevent interference.

The Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade group, and Qualcomm both praised the FCC vote. "Small cells, when deployed in conjunction with macro cells using smart network technology, will expand capacity substantially, enhance network coverage and reliability, and even improve position location accuracy. Small cells will require a predictable quality of service, and, therefore, the spectrum must be shared on an authorized basis," Qualcomm said in a statement.

Also, the commission late Wednesday voted to free up 40MHz of satellite spectrum for land-based mobile broadband service. The commission, outside public meeting, voted to free up the AWS-4 band, which owner Dish Network plans to use to build an LTE network by 2016, and the FCC also approved a notice of proposed rulemaking to auction the so-called H Block in the 1900MHz PCS spectrum in 2013.

Sprint Nextel has expressed interest in the H block but had long expressed concerns that mobile broadband in the nearby AWS-4 spectrum would cause interference. The FCC made a "balanced and equitable decision" to deal with the AWS-4 and H blocks, Sprint said in a statement.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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