Unilateral and unsuccessful measures held to satisfy requirement for “cooperation” in 3650-3700 MHz band.

The FCC has reviewed its interpretation of a rule that some parties found to be unhelpfully vague. In refusing to make changes, the FCC has left those affected uncertain of their obligations.

As is generally expected of rules, most at the FCC take the form of “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not.” Sometimes there is room for dispute on how a rule applies to a novel situation. But in ordinary cases, the requirements are usually pretty clear.

These principles fail to hold, some think, in the policies governing the 3650-3700 MHz band. The procedures are unique in the FCC rulebook. There is no formal frequency coordination, as in most licensed bands, to protect first-in users against interference from later arrivals. But neither is there an everybody-into-the-pool approach like that governing Wi-Fi. The FCC does keep a database of users, much like the ones frequency coordinators rely on, but its implementation is strictly on a do-it-yourself basis, and arguably optional.

Back in December 2009, we reported on a decision by the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau concerning this band.

An incumbent licensee in Puerto Rico complained of interference from a newcomer. The incumbent accused the newcomer of failing to check the database before firing up its transmitters, failing to coordinate, and operating before its transmitters showed up in the database (making it hard for the incumbent to find the cause of interference). Once the source had been identified, said the incumbent, the newcomer failed to cooperate in clearing it up.

In most licensed bands, the newcomer would be at fault. The rules for 3650-3700 MHz do say that applicants and licensees “shall cooperate in the selection and use of frequencies” so as to minimize interference. But when it comes to specifics, the tone of the rules changes. Incoming users “should” consult the database, and “should” try to avoid causing interference. When interference does occur, all users “are expected to” cooperate in resolving it. “Thou should,” in other words, rather than “Thou shalt.”

The 2009 Bureau decision on the Puerto Rico incident found for the newcomer. The rules, it said, do not give the incumbent any priority in the interference food chain.

The incumbent sought review by the full Commission, restating the arguments it had raised before the Bureau. It also proposed that the rules, properly read, require the newcomer to reach out to the incumbent before filing its application, so the two can cooperate in devising a plan for coexistence.

The Commission has now firmly rejected that view. It reiterates that all parties have equal status in the 3650-3700 MHz band, regardless of their sequence of arrival. Moreover, the cooperation the FCC requires in selection and use of frequencies need not entail the parties actually working together. Here, it found, certain actions by the newcomer (installing directional antennas), although unilateral and apparently unsuccessful, constituted all the cooperation required. The order did note that if either party causes interference to the other, they must act in good faith to help eliminate it. But it offered nothing in the way of particulars.

In principle, the all-in-it-together attitude has considerable appeal. But things happen; interference occurs; someone must spend money or suspend service to fix it. When a choice is available, there is a natural human tendency to point fingers rather than write checks. The Fixed Wireless Communications Coalition (a client of FHH) has asked the FCC to at least drop the “should” terminology and make compliance mandatory. It would also help if the FCC were to clarify what compliance consists of.