On Tuesday, the FCC followed through on its earlier announcement by adopting three wireless spectrum items intended to facilitate wireless broadband deployments. The items were: 1) a broadcast spectrum reorganization NPRM; 2) an experimental licensing NPRM; and 3) a "dynamic" spectrum access NOI. While the first item seeks to make new spectrum available in the near term, the second and third items explore longer term solutions to the wireless broadband plan goals.

Broadcast Spectrum Reorganization NPRM

The first item advances the goal of freeing up 120 MHz of broadcast spectrum through voluntary repacking to allow for additional wireless broadband use. In this item, the FCC proposes three specific sets of rule changes intended to pave the way for broadcaster relocation so that the spectrum can be cleared for incentive auctions. First, the FCC proposes the formality of amending its spectrum allocation tables to create co-primary fixed and mobile wireless allocations along side all current broadcast television band allocations. Second, the FCC proposes rule changes to enable two or more broadcasters to share standard 6 MHz channels, which are typically used for single broadcasts today. Third, the FCC proposes new technical rules to enhance the reach of digital broadcasts in the VHF television bands (in the 54 to 216 MHz frequency range) in order to encourage broadcasters to relocate to VHF frequencies and abandon their operations in the UHF television bands (470 to 698 MHz).

Additional details about these proposed changes can be found in this summary on the Broadcast Law Blog by David Oxenford.

Experimental Licensing NPRM

This second item proposes several rule changes to the FCC’s experimental licensing regime. The most significant of these is a set of proposals to create three new classes of experimental licenses conferring substantial spectrum-use testing authority for three kinds of eligible entities: universities, private sector researchers, and medical centers. These authorizations would give qualified applicants wider authority to use the public airwaves for experimentation, and would eliminate the need to apply for new experimental licenses for each research project, for each new spectrum band used, and for each modification to an existing experiment. Licensees under this new regime would be given blanket rights to conduct experiments over large portions of the radio spectrum as long as experimental operations are conducted on a non-interference basis with existing licensed wireless operations.

The first class of educational experimental licenses would be open only to colleges, universities, and non-profit research organizations. Noting that most educational experimental licenses would be used on a campus setting, the Commission observed that special care would need to be taken to avoid causing interference to students’ avid cell phone use. The second class of private research licenses (referred to as “innovation zone” licenses) would be open to entities unaffiliated with an educational institution or non-profit. Licensing would be restricted to users with credentialed competence in radio engineering, and use of the license would be tied to appropriate applicant-designated geographic testing areas. The third class of medical experimental license would enable broad testing of wireless medical devices at authorized public and private hospitals and other health care institutions.

Other changes proposed in the Experimental Licensing NPRM include: new rules that will make it easier to conduct market trials of new wireless devices; streamlined compliance measures for obtaining experimental licenses; and consolidation of existing rules for experimental broadcast licenses and all other wireless experimental licenses.

Dynamic Spectrum Access NOI

The third item begins an inquiry into the potentials of cognitive radio technologies, dynamic spectrum licensing regimes, and other possible developments to help us get increasingly efficient use out of the airwaves. Some of the issues discussed in the NOI are spectrum concepts that have been tried previously without great success.

For instance, the FCC asked for broad information to help it assess how spectrum sensing technology can be better implemented to improve efficient spectrum use. The FCC originally imposed a spectrum sensing requirement for devices using the unlicensed television white spaces, but then later removed the requirement based in part on test results showing poor performance (see prior coverage here and here). Similar spectrum sensing requirements have been imposed in the 5 GHz unlicensed use band and the 3.6 GHz band.

The FCC also asked for comment on various licensing approaches that could facilitate more efficient spectrum arrangements and technology deployments. In particular, the FCC inquired as to what could be done to encourage broader use of its secondary markets (or “spectrum leasing”) rules to increase efficient use of the airwaves. The FCC’s spectrum leasing rules are commonly used by licensees to turn over spectrum usage rights to third parties, who then assume most control of transmission operations over the spectrum. However, the leasing rules also allow licensees to enter into spectrum sharing arrangements where both the licensee and lessor can continue to provide wireless services over the spectrum on a time-sharing or priority basis. In 2004, the FCC introduced another spectrum leasing option known as the “private commons” arrangement. Under this arrangement, licensees may lease the same spectrum simultaneously to multiple users who all take advantage of cognitive radio technologies, so that all parties can make successful transmissions over the same frequencies without constantly knocking each others’ signals off the air. These latter two options have not been widely used, and the FCC asked for comment on what could be done to make them viable alternatives.

Other topics on which the FCC requested input were: potential expansions of its flexible use licensing regime; the promise of broadband networks comprised of mixed licensed and unlicensed spectrum; and potential improvements or expansions of the FCC’s spectrum dashboard and other spectrum use tracking databases.