The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has again demonstrated that enabling the 5G ecosystem that, among other things, will drive breakthroughs in the Internet of Things (IoT), remains an agency priority.

In a meeting late last week, the FCC adopted multiple items aimed at expanding spectrum availability and access for 5G applications and services, as well as IoT devices. We will report separately on the FCC’s headline-grabbing action to partially reallocate the C-band. In the meantime, the three items addressing television White Spaces, the 3.5 GHz band, and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund all have relevance for IoT stakeholders.

Television White Spaces

An oft forgotten—and for some, perhaps previously unheard of—portion of spectrum involves “white spaces,” the 6-MHz slices of the broadcast television bands not licensed for authorized services. The NPRM adopted Friday would permit the use of higher transmit power and higher antennas for unlicensed white space devices operating in rural areas, extending the reach of these devices and enabling improved broadband coverage. Greater access to high-speed broadband is in itself relevant to IoT devices that increasingly require higher bandwidth and lower latency, but the proposal also includes rule revisions intended to support the development of new and innovative narrowband IoT-based services.

Specifically, the FCC’s Order modifies existing white space rules to define a “narrowband white space device”—a fixed or portable device operating in a bandwidth no greater than 100 KHz. These rule revisions could potentially open unused white spaces to a host of new IoT services, as each unused 6-MHz television channel will now have the bandwidth to accommodate up to fifty-five 100-KHz narrowband sub-channels. In contrast, the FCC’s prior rules applied power limits based on white space devices spreading energy uniformly across an entire 6-MHz white space channel, which, according to some stakeholders, impeded the deployment of IoT-based services.

Auction of Priority Access Licenses for the 3.5 GHz Band

The FCC in 2015 adopted rules for shared commercial use of the 3.5 GHz band, establishing the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and creating a three-tiered access and authorization framework to accommodate non-federal commercial services amid existing incumbent federal use. On Friday, the FCC ratified bidding procedures for a planned June 25, 2020 auction of licenses in the commercial-use tier of the CBRS. These licenses, called Priority Access Licenses (PALs), authorize the use of a 10-MHz unpaired channel within the 3.5 GHz band.

Up to seven PALs are available per county-based license area, placing 22,631 PALs up for auction nationwide. This PAL auction, which the FCC touts as offering “the largest number of spectrum licenses ever made available for bidding in a single auction,” will add to the spectrum available for 5G wireless deployment, providing more opportunity for growth in 5G and IoT services.

Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I Auction Bidding Procedures

The FCC’s latest effort to strengthen the nation’s wired broadband infrastructure is the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which targets up to $20.4 billion over ten years for investment in high-speed broadband networks serving rural areas. Although focused primarily on bridging the digital divide, this effort is also important to the 5G ecosystem, including IoT-based devices and services that require reliable high-speed broadband support.

On Friday, the FCC proposed pre- and post-auction application and competitive bidding procedures for Phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction scheduled to begin on October 22, 2020. Phase I will allocate up to $16 billion to interested providers who offer to support voice and broadband services in eligible unserved high-cost census blocks. To allocate this support, the FCC has proposed using the competitive-bidding procedures applied in the 2018 Connect America Fund (“CAF”) auction, with a few important modifications. Most notable is that the FCC plans to weigh more favorably those support offers providing higher network speeds and lower latency. Additionally, whereas the minimum download/upload speed for subsidized broadband deployment in the CAF auction was 10/1 Mbps, the minimum speed required for participation in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is 25/3 Mbps.

Although they address various swathes of spectrum and concern the deployment of high-speed broadband generally, the items addressed in the FCC’s February meeting also demonstrate the agency’s commitment to supporting the 5G ecosystem that will power growth of the Internet of Things. As Commissioner Rosenworcel noted in statements addressing the White Spaces Order, the FCC continues to “open up new possibilities for using [the] airwaves to power the Internet of Things and extend the reach of broadband networks.”