What the FCC’s 5G spectrum plan means for Ka-band satellite

July 20th, 2016 by · 1 Comment

This article was authored by John C. Tanner, and was originally posted on telecomasia.net.

Last week the FCC voted unanimously to open up nearly 11 GHz of high-frequency spectrum – 3.85 GHz of licensed spectrum and 7 GHz of unlicensed spectrum – for “flexible, mobile, and fixed use wireless broadband”, which basically means 5G.

That’s potentially good news for US operators planning to leverage millimeter-wave bands for 5G applications – but not-so-good news for satellite operators, although most satellite players outside the US probably won’t have to worry about it for a long time yet.

The bands in the FCC plan include 28 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and the 64-71GHz bands. However, part of the 28-GHz band is already being used by satellite operators for Ka-band services. And satellite players have expressed severe annoyance at the FCC for even considering the 28-GHz band as a terrestrial 5G frequency, not least because one of the outcomes of WRC-15 in November was a tacit agreement to exclude the band from consideration for 5G usage.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler – who hasn’t been particularly sympathetic to the satellite industry’s argument that no one else should be able to use the 28-GHz band – says the approved plan strikes the best possible balance to allow terrestrial and satellite players to share the band, reports FierceWireless:

When asked about the satellite players' objections in a press conference after the commission's meeting, Wheeler said there were dueling studies back and forth on the issues, which were insufficient to go one way or another. "We are going to continue the efforts to study the issue, and if it's necessary to re-examine it, we will."

While the satellite industry didn't get everything it wanted, neither did the terrestrial mobile industry. In announcing the final rules, FCC staff noted that the commission struck a balance between new wireless services, current and future fixed satellite service operations and federal uses. The FCC said the order includes effective sharing schemes to ensure that diverse users, including satellite and terrestrial, as well as fixed and mobile, can coexist and expand.

Tom Stroup, president of the Satellite Industry Association issued a diplomatic response to the ruling: “SIA is also encouraged by the provisions pertaining to earth stations operating in the 28 GHz band but still has concerns regarding potential aggregate interference. We look forward to working with the FCC further and appreciate the Commission’s willingness to revisit this issue as needed. There are many sophisticated technical issues posed by this rulemaking, and we are eager to fully evaluate the rules that have been adopted.”

What this will mean for 28 GHz at WRC-19 is anyone’s guess. One possible outcome: if US players actually hammer out a feasible plan for terrestrial/satellite co-existence, WRC-19 could conceivably decide to make 28 GHz a global band for 5G apps.

Even it that happens, though, it’s important to remember that all of this is way off in the future. Millimeter-wave will certainly be a cornerstone technology for 5G access one day, but as Rethink Research has pointed out, most initial 5G activities in the world won’t be focused on millimeter-wave anyway – they’re more likely to be using sub 6-GHz frequencies. So the interference issue isn't an imminent one outside of the US.

Meanwhile, here’s one interesting observation from Rethink’s Caroline Gabriel: when millimeter-wave 5G does start to happen, it will herald the beginning of the end for the established MNO business model:

Some of that is happening already. Facebook’s OpenCellular and Terragraph, and Google’s Loon, show how open technologies can be applied to access networks, breaking the stranglehold of the traditional vendors with their closely guarded magic, but also lowering the barriers to new entrant operators. MNOs from Bouygues to Saudi Telecom to Deutsche Telekom discussed the divestment of their towers this week – this is just one small step to a deconstructured market where infrastructure is shared, capacity flexibly allocated, and core technology placed into open source.

That said, she adds, the key technology enabling this shift isn’t 5G radio but dynamic bandwidth-slicing enabled by network virtualization.

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Categories: Government Regulations · satellite · Wireless

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  • Anonymous says:

    The Federal Govt should not be selling spectrum, but rather leasing it to the carriers. Big mistake when they sell spectrum and loose future revenue.

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