By a unanimous margin, the FCC voted yesterday to launch proceedings on proposed rules that would open 3.7-4.2 GHz C-band channels to terrestrial fifthgeneration (5G) wireless services. 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 point-to-point microwave services. Following up on a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) issued last year, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) adopted at yesterday’s FCC open meeting solicits comment on proposals to allocate spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for mobile 5G use through market-based mechanisms or other possible means.

One of the approaches under consideration in the NPRM is the market-based solution proposed jointly by global satellite network operators Intelsat and SES S.A., which were recently also joined by Eutelsat, and chipmaker Intel in documents filed previously with the FCC. That solution would provide wireless broadband carriers with the opportunity to reach commercial agreements with FSS operators who would clear portions of the C-band for “flexible terrestrial mobile use.” In addition to ensuring that incumbent FSS operators “will be able to facilitate terrestrial mobile use in a manner that fully accounts for their costs,” the proposed market-based framework would also ensure “that incumbent FSS operations will be protected from harmful interference.”

In addition to “working up” from 3.7 GHz to allocate C-Band spectrum for flexible wireless use, the NPRM would also seek comment on proposals to “work down” from 4.2 GHz to permit more intensive point-to-multipoint fixed use on a shared basis. As part of that proposal, the NPRM solicits input on rules which would “define and protect incumbent users from harmful interference” while facilitating “efficient and intensive use by any new services in the band.”

Pursuant to a Report and Order approved in connection with the NPRM, FSS earth stations operating in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band would be required to certify the accuracy of existing registration and license information to assist the FCC and commenters “in developing a clearer understanding of how the band is used.” The FCC would also require C-band space station licensees to submit information on their operations that would enable the agency “to evaluate the most efficient way to drive the deployment of mid-band spectrum for mobile services.” 

Meanwhile, with respect to the proposed Intelsat-Intel-SES framework, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly stipulated “there are still many details to be worked out” but acknowledged: “it is easy to see how the spectrum can be expeditiously put into the hands of the wireless industry and how the satellite industry and its broadcast, cable and other customers can be made whole.” O’Rielly further noted that “money received by the satellite industry from these free market negotiations will cover the costs of repacking their users . . . launching new satellites, laying fiber, or moving their customers to new technologies or satellite systems.” Along the same vein, Commissioner Brendan Carr agreed that the Intelsat-Intel-SES market-based mechanism “could provide the quickest path to clearing the spectrum, and it could do so without the inevitable issues that arise when the Commission begins imposing mandates and repurposing the spectrum.” However, as she described this market-based approach as “creative,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel reminded her colleagues of the importance of enacting a framework which “serves the public interest,” as she emphasized that 3.7-4.2 GHz C-band spectrum is currently used by FSS customers in the broadcast television, radio and cable industries “to deliver programming to more than 100 million American households.”