As mobile services become increasingly ubiquitous, wireless networks’ ability to reach our devices become preeminent. The invisible real estate that allows our phones to be mobile is called spectrum — namely radio and microwave frequencies. However, there’s one problem: spectrum, like land, is finite, and various stakeholders occupy the most valuable frequencies. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) is responsible for allocating commercial spectrum and faces an increasingly significant charge of accommodating new benefits and promoting innovative services as demand for commercial uses and market need for wireless services grows. Therefore, deploying strong 5G networks is so important because they will help connect the expected 30.9 billion Internet of things (IoT) devices by 2025.
However, if the Commission does not efficiently maximize our uses of critical spectrum, it will stunt not only the deployment of our 5G networks but also our competitiveness internationally. As China’s position as a primary global carrier continues to strengthen, it’s imperative that the FCC take timely action on critical proceedings to enhance our domestic wireless connectivity policy, catapulting the United States into a leadership role in the international 5G competition.
Fortunately, the FCC has before it a significant opportunity to do just this by expanding the use of 12 GHz — a spectrum band ideal for last-mile connectivity. The FCC recently put out a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) — a substantial step in the agency adopting a rule with the effect of law — on the feasibility of allowing satellite and terrestrial commercial operations to more robustly share the 12.2–12.7-gigahertz (GHz) spectrum band. If the FCC permits this type of use in the 12 GHz band, it could effectively expand broadband access and expedite mobile 5G network buildouts.
First, what is 12 GHz, and why does it matter?
In the United States, the FCC has allocated the 12 GHz band on a co-primary basis for non-Federal use. Currently, there are three services the Commission has authorized to operate in the band. They are: 1) Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) providers operating under the primary Broadcasting Satellite Service (BSS) allocation (i.e., DISH Network and DirectTV), 2) Multi-Channel Video and Data Distribution Service (MVDDS) licensees (e.g., terrestrial providers) operating on a non-harmful interference basis to DBS under the co-primary Fixed Service allocation, and 3) non-geostationary orbit systems (NGSO) licensees (e.g., Space X) operating on a non-harmful interference basis to DBS under the co-primary NGSO fixed-satellite service (FSS) allocation.
A recent study suggests that the 12 GHz band can expedite the deployment of our 5G networks by providing so-called last-mile fixed-mobile services. This 500 MHz of spectrum would complement the significant amount of mid-band spectrum for 5G that the FCC opened up under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai (indeed, it’s smack dab between mid-band and the millimeter-wave frequencies — Goldilocks supplemental spectrum).
If the Commission proceeds, your mobile device can connect more easily to distant wireless towers with minimal infrastructure. A city can enjoy more connectivity without deploying towers that look nothing like palm trees or digging up more wires to connect directly to buildings. Additionally, this can mitigate the costs associated with seeking permits at the state and local levels. These local barriers of entry take a team of lawyers to sift through a jurisdictions’ legal claims and take up a significant amount of time. Candidly, the fewer regulator hoops carriers need to go through in a city’s zoning process, the better, which makes this use of 12 GHz even more appealing.
So… why the delay?
The main issue with leveraging the 12 GHz band for 5G purposes is a regulatory one. Currently, the FCC’s rules do not allow for two-way mobile operations and set power limits much lower than other bands used for wireless 5G operations. Hence, the FCC needs to adopt new rules to accommodate 5G, which it can do through its open NPRM.
The record in this proceeding is clear and robust, and the FCC should follow the data. For instance, a significant RKF Engineering Solutions, LLC (RKF) study provided a thorough analysis showing that the FCC can move forward with a sharing arrangement amongst these new and incumbent uses. That scientific modeling clearly shows that coexistence between prospective NGSO services and terrestrial 5G services that are currently experiencing enormous growth is imminently feasible. As the study reveals, expanding the 12 GHz spectrum band for 5G would result in 99% of terminals using non-geostationary orbit satellite service experiencing no interference. Furthermore, for the less than 1% of potential future NGSO users that may experience some interference, mitigation strategies are readily available to address them.
Yet, some oppose the rule change due to their business models rather than the full potential of the band through sharing.
Opponents' claims attempt to mire the Commission’s record, which presents the agency with a false choice by assuming that these proffered business models are mutually exclusive to one another. Specifically, some claim that if the FCC moves forward with a coexistence model it will delve an existential blow to its rural broadband service. For instance, SpaceX filed formally with the Commission on how they can better use the band to provide rural broadband. This is simply not true. As the RKF study points out, all these services can coexist in the band and provide enormous value to consumers, in urban and rural America. Notably, none of the companies that vehemently opposed the change (including SpaceX) have provided a contrary engineering study that directly challenges the RKF study.
What is more, the satellite incumbents operate on a limited license, subject to strict conditions based on future Commission actions. These companies operate other bands in addition to the 12 GHz band, and some have even indicated that they do not need the 12 GHz band to provide its services in rural areas (although they’ve done so only in other proceedings, trying to keep this record muddy). Without concrete data, it is unclear why these satellite providers feel like they need such a wide swath of this 12 GHz spectrum at all. U.S. regulators should focus their attention, efforts and funding towards solutions that move the needle on closing our digital divide, bringing everyone from last-mile farmers to inner-city students online.
Frankly, 12 GHz could play a vital role in promoting our 5G networks, especially when one considers how much mid-band and millimeter-wave spectrum the FCC has already moved. Moreover, even if the FCC permitted 5G services with the express condition that those services do not interfere with any of the incumbents, one recent study pegs the value of such a rule change as creating a total societal benefit of $270 billion (at minimum).
The FCC has a history of ignoring empty and uncorroborated rhetoric. Instead, the Commission relies on the facts and the law as they apply to each individual band. Moreover, the agency leveraged such sober analysis to advance our competitiveness in 5G over the last five years. Let’s hope it continues that tradition and recognizes the extraordinary opportunity this 500 MHz of the 12 GHz band represents for American consumers, American manufacturers, and American leadership in 5G.
Joel Thayer is President of the Digital Progress Institute and an attorney based in Washington, D.C. The Digital Progress Institute is a D.C. non-profit that seeks to bridge the policy divide between telecom and tech through bipartisan consensus. He has represented clients in front of myriad legal and regulatory fora, including the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission and federal administrative agencies. Additionally, he has also represented amicus curiae before the United States Supreme Court and advised technology companies on digital regulation.
The views Mr. Thayer expresses are his own and not of the Digital Progress Institute.
 Coleman Bazelon and Paroma Sanyal, Valuing the 12 GHz Spectrum Band with Flexible Use Rights, The Brattle Group (2021).