Regulatory inaction preventing U.S. from taking advantage of latest E-band antenna technology

It’s common knowledge that the FCC is determined to expand mobile connectivity. The Commission’s high profile efforts to make increasing amounts of spectrum available for that purpose – the much-ballyhooed spectrum incentive auction being the most prominent example – tend to dominate the current regulatory landscape. But what happens when the targeted spectrum is finally available for wireless purposes? When it comes to the nitty-gritty details governing use of the newly-available spectrum, will the rules and policies imposing those details be ready to maximize and optimize that use? 

On at least one front it looks like considerable prep work could be underway, but isn’t. The front we’re talking about: antenna regulations in the E-band frequency block that runs from 71-76 GHz and 81-86 GHz.

The E-band, of course, is not part of the spectrum on the table in the incentive auction. But, particularly once the wireless beneficiaries of that auction begin to take advantage of their acquisitions, the E-band should play an important role. It is ideal for backhaul of wireless broadband signals, particularly in an urban environment where short-range, low power operations can be used in small cell systems. Small cell systems permit the efficient reuse of spectrum, obviously a desirable attribute.

As public reliance on the vast array of available mobile devices continues to soar, small cell base stations are being deployed in greater numbers to bridge the network capacity gap. Small cells can do this only if they are deployed as close as possible to users. In many cases, “close as possible” means at or near street level where the options for locating antennas are limited. But such close-in installation of antennas raises a host of practical problems. Communities are highly sensitized to the aesthetics of base stations and wireless backhaul equipment in their immediate environment. Anything that stands out visually tends to meet strenuous opposition. And even if installation of such antennas is approved by local authorities, the cost and inconvenience of the actual installation can be a significant disincentive. Further, in urban areas inter-site distances are often only a few hundred feet, far less than the 1-3 mile distances for which traditional E-band parabolic antennas were designed.

The ability to use small form factor antennas is likely to be critical to the acceptance and expansion of small cell wireless coverage for mobile users. But limits imposed by the FCC’s current rules governing antennas in the E-band preclude use of smaller, lighter, more unobtrusive antennas most suitable for deployment in cities.

So if the Commission, looking into its crystal ball, foresees more and more small cell systems in urban environments, shouldn’t the Commission be getting set, now, to make sure that such systems can and will in fact be installed? You’d think so. And yet, for more than two years a couple of proposals looking to adjust the FCC’s antenna specs for the E-band have sat on a shelf somewhere in the Portals.

In formal comments filed with the Commission (in 2012, 2013 and again in 2014), the Fixed Wireless Communications Coalition urged that the antenna standards for E-band operation be relaxed. And in 2013, Aviat Networks asked for a waiver of the existing antenna standards. Aviat is one of a number of manufacturers with products that utilize small flat-panel or ultra-small parabolic antennas suitable for backhaul operations in the E-band. But those antennas don’t conform to the current rules, so until the FCC modernizes its regulations, deployment of the latest antennas is simply impossible in the United States.

No action has yet been taken on either request.

This lack of action is puzzling. In view of the ordinary, seemingly unavoidable delays inherent in the rulemaking process, one might think that the FCC would at least want to start addressing rules which preclude, or at least discourage, efficient use of spectrum. Maybe issue a notice of proposed rulemaking, or at least solicit comments on the proposals. Anything to get the ball rolling so that the stage is properly set when the post-auction curtain opens. It would seem to be in everybody’s interest – including especially the entities who ultimately establish urban systems reliant on backhaul capacity – to ensure that, once the deployment stage arrives, the Commission’s rules permit optimal use of the available spectrum.

While the FCC has taken no apparent action in the direction of permitting small antenna use in the E-band, our neighbors to the North haven’t sat idly by. Industry Canada (IC) is already allowing use of smaller antennas while its regulations are being finalized. IC’s decision to allow use of those antennas on an interim basis strongly suggests that IC is confident that they will comply with the rules that will eventually be adopted. Small form factor antennas are also authorized for use in Europe and other international markets. In other words, the soundness of the technology involved here has been established in real-world operation. That being the case, there is no apparent downside in the FCC joining its international confreres in permitting small antenna use – and, as noted above, there is considerable upside to doing so.

The Commission’s plate is full to overflowing these days. Just sorting out the mind-numbingly complex reverse/forward auction could occupy the agency full-time, even without net neutrality, major media mergers, and other more mundane activities. But as a simple matter of planning, it would seem to make sense for the FCC to clear any obstacles that might slow down deployment of the most spectrum-efficient systems available.

[Disclosure: Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth represents parties advocating for approval of smaller E-band antennas.]