Following up on a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) issued last year, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued a draft copy of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) yesterday which solicits comment on proposals to open the 3.7-4.2 GHz band to terrestrial fifth-generation (5G) wireless services.

Known as the C-band, the 3.7-4.2 GHz band has long been the domain of fixed satellite service (FSS) space and earth station operations as well as fixed pointto-point microwave services. With the goal of expanding opportunities for 5G mobile broadband services, the FCC adopted a NOI last August on the possibility of opening three mid-range frequency bands—3.7.7-4.2 GHz, 5.925-6.425 GHz, and 6.425-7.125 GHz—to flexible use by terrestrial wireless operators. In response to that NOI, Intel first teamed up with global satellite network operator Intelsat and, later, with global satellite network operator SES S.A. in proposing a market-based solution through which wireless broadband carriers would be given the opportunity to reach commercial agreements with satellite operators who would clear portions of the C-band for “flexible terrestrial mobile use.” As specified in that proposal, Intelsat and other participating FSS operators would work cooperatively to “identify geographic areas of the country where they could undertake the complicated and costly process of clearing portions of the C-band for terrestrial use.” Meanwhile, the market-driven framework through which wireless operators would negotiate with FSS incumbents would ensure that “incumbent FSS operators will be able to facilitate terrestrial mobile use in a manner that fully accounts for their costs,” while “ensuring that incumbent FSS operations will be protected from harmful interference.” Intelsat and SES further pledged to establish a consortium, to be opened to all U.S. C-band satellite operators, which would “oversee the governance of the initiative, define and implement the methodology for spectrum clearance, and serve as the sole interface for market-based transactions.”

Acknowledging that “a significant benefit of a market-based approach may be a more rapid introduction of C-band spectrum to the market,” the draft NPRM would request comment on “the efficacy of using a market-based approach to transition some or all of the 3.7-4.2 GHz band to flexible terrestrial use” while asking for stakeholder input on the “costs and benefits” of the Intel-Intelsat-SES proposal “vis-à-vis the alternative proposals set forth in this section.” Referencing the consortium proposed by Intelsat and SES, the draft NPRM would also solicit comment on the establishment of a Transition Facilitator, described as “a cooperative entity created by relevant satellite operators to coordinate negotiations, clearing and repacking the band.” To enable the FCC to “make informed decisions about the scope of future satellite, fixed service, and potential terrestrial mobile use” of the 3.7- 4.2 GHz band, the agency also issued a draft order alongside the draft NPRM which would require FSS incumbents to provide “additional information about earth stations and space stations operating in the band to obtain a better understanding of the technical characteristics of existing operations.” Meanwhile, in addition to requesting input on “how to properly define different classes of incumbents and on steps regarding the future of incumbents,” the draft NPRM would seek comment on (1) various proposals for expanding flexible use of the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, including “whether to transition all or part of the band through a market-based mechanism, auction mechanisms, or alternative mechanisms,” (2) allowing point-to-multipoint use on a shared basis in a portion of the band, and (3) what service and technical rules should be changed or adopted.

The draft NPRM is scheduled for a vote at the FCC’s upcoming July 12 open meeting. In a blog post yesterday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai further noted that the FCC would launch separate, but related rulemaking proceedings this fall to promote flexible usage of the 6 GHz (i.e., 5.925-6.425 GH, and 6.425-7.125 GHz) band. Declaring, “when it comes to 5G, we need to keep the playbook fresh and forward leaning,” Pai proclaimed that, in voting upon the draft NPRM next month, “the FCC will take another step to ensure that America continues to lead the world in mobile innovation.”