Photo courtesy of George Kizer

Radio spectrum and real estate have a lot in common. They’re not making any more of either; and for both, location really does matter. “Location,” for spectrum, means frequency. Much as different real estate locations best serve different purposes, different technological applications work best in different frequency ranges. Like prime downtown addresses, though, all the best frequencies are taken. If you want to build something new, you’ll first have to acquire an existing piece of property, whose present occupants will have to go somewhere else. The same is true with spectrum. Part of the FCC’s job is to make sure the spectrum incumbents can find suitable new homes.
A lot of the impetus for spectrum redevelopment comes from the growing demand for mobile bandwidth, which in turn comes from people streaming movies and videos on their phones and tablets. The FCC keeps making more spectrum available to the wireless carriers, but it can’t keep up. The recent incentive auction freed up another 70 MHz for licensed wireless broadband, which sounds like a lot, but still not enough. And it’s peanuts compared to the next possible target: 3.7-4.2 GHz. That’s a full 500 MHz of prime real estate, by far the biggest block ever considered that can carry the 4G-type wireless services we all rely on.

Needless to say, the 3.7-4.2 GHz band is in use.

The band formed a major part of the early transcontinental microwave systems built in the 1950s and 60s to carry long-distance telephone calls and network TV programs. Microwave links at these frequencies can span many tens of miles with antennas of manageable size, making it ideal for this use. The same properties also make it suitable for communication satellites’ space-to-Earth downlinks, starting with the very first commercial satellite launched in 1965. The growth of TV and cable over the following decades relied on growing numbers of satellites that used 3.7-4.2 GHz for program distribution. Many Americans found they could bypass the TV stations and cable companies by installing those big backyard dishes that receive the cable and network signals directly.

Much of the former microwave traffic has since migrated to fiber optic cable. But 3.7-4.2 GHz remains a workhorse band for satellites, particularly for video distribution.

That may soon change.

Last August the FCC issued a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) asking about possible new applications over the broad range between 3.7 and 24 GHz. (An NOI seeks general comments and ideas, typically preceding a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that lays out specific possible regulations.) Among other things, the NOI tentatively suggested opening the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for mobile broadband use. Shortly before the NOI came a blog post from Commissioner O’Rielly that called satellite services in the band “a bit past their prime” and suggested giving satellite operators incentives to move elsewhere in the spectrum.

These ideas drew loud applause from many commenters, along with anxiety from the satellite companies and their customers in the band. The applause caught the ear of the FCC and Congress. The omnibus spending bill that Congress passed in March included the MOBILE NOW Act, which directs the FCC to report on “the feasibility of allowing commercial wireless services, licensed or unlicensed,” to use or share 3.7-4.2 GHz. (The omnibus bill also has special provisions that affect broadcasters.)

The FCC has only three basic options for introducing new services in an occupied band: It can require newcomers to protect the incumbents from interference (as TV White Space operators must protect TV reception); it can pay the incumbents to leave the band (as it did through the TV incentive auction); or it can require the newcomers to pay the costs of moving the incumbents to a different band (as cell companies moving into the 1.9 GHz band paid to relocate fixed microwave facilities to other frequencies). All of these options are disruptive; none is easy.

Following passage of the MOBILE NOW Act, the FCC took three steps in rapid succession.

First, without warning, it announced an immediate freeze on new 3.7-4.2 GHz satellite and

applications, while opening a 90-day window for the licensing, or registration, of existing satellite dishes. Such a freeze often precedes major changes in a band by capping the numbers of incumbents that will have to be protected, bought out, or otherwise accommodated. Second, the FCC opened a new docket, separate from the NOI, to receive filings “related to the potential for more intensive use of the 3.7-4.2 GHz Band” – another sign of major changes in the works. Third, the FCC issued a brief public notice with broad questions on how the band might accommodate new services, to help the FCC with the report it must make to Congress. This, has short deadlines: comments are due on May 31 and reply comments on June 15.

Here at CommLawBlog we don’t often try to predict the future, but we do see a lot of momentum toward some kind of mobile service at 3.7-4.2 GHz. The problem is what to do with all those satellite dishes and fixed microwave links. If you have ideas, please let us know. And tell the FCC.