Today’s wireless mobile broadband networks largely operate on spectrum below 3 GHz, but engineers and policymakers are actively looking to higher frequency bands for the development of next-generation “5G” platforms.  As U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler noted, these technologies “could theoretically dramatically increase wireless broadband speeds and throughput – up to 10 gigabits per second.”

On October 17, 2014, the FCC released a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) exploring the wireless industry’s interest in using millimeter wave (mmW) spectrum for wireless mobile services.  In particular, the FCC asked whether mmW spectrum above 24 GHz band could be used for next-generation (5G) wireless mobile broadband services.  The FCC also sought comment on recent mmW technological developments, the preferred type of licensing regime, proposed technical rules, and other related issues.  Comments were due January 15, 2015.

Many equipment manufacturers and developers filed comments that highlighted their ongoing research into mmW technologies and the feasibility of using mmW spectrum for both next-generation mobile services and novel “Internet of Things” applications.  A number of commenters identified the deployment of mmW spectrum in small-cell systems as a promising initial use, one that could greatly expand the capacity of existing mobile networks.  Commenters stressed the importance of global harmonization in the development of mmW standards, especially in light of parallel ITU-R and WRC-19 proceedings.  They, along with wireless service providers, also cautioned the FCC not to get ahead of industry developments and to adopt technology-neutral rules.

Mobile wireless providers also expressed support for the allocation of mmW spectrum to facilitate mobile broadband operations, although many encouraged to FCC to focus on increasing the availability of lower-band spectrum.  Commenters supported a variety of licensing mechanisms, including licensed, unlicensed, and hybrid approaches.  Advocates of exclusive-use licenses stated that this approach would maximize investment and innovation in emerging mmW technologies.  Other commenters stressed the utility of making the spectrum available on an unlicensed basis and supported the FCC’s proposal to allow unlicensed Part 15 operations across the entire 60 GHz band.

Incumbent satellite, fixed wireless, amateur radio, and radio astronomy users that operate in the bands above 24 GHz emphasized the importance of protecting incumbent users and asked the FCC to address interference concerns when exploring novel uses of mmW spectrum.

Reply comments were due February 17, 2015, and now the FCC will decide whether it should take any further action regarding the use of mmW spectrum to support next-generation wireless broadband operations.  Chairman Wheeler has already endorsed the use of mmW spectrum as part of a diversified, “all-of-the-above” strategy for meeting U.S. spectrum demand.  With countries such as Japan and South Korea eyeing 5G rollouts within the next five years, it will be important for the FCC to continue monitoring global mmW technological developments that may increase the demand for mmW spectrum and support next-generation mobile wireless services.

The author wishes to thank Jason Qu in our Washington, D.C. office for his assistance in preparing this article.