Groundbreaking FCC Action: Fallow Spectrum Is Available for Use

Wireless Wonk

Groundbreaking FCC Action: Fallow Spectrum Is Available for Use

By Barlow Keener, Attorney  |  September 30, 2014

At long last, the FCC (News - Alert) has seen the light of spectrum efficiency and approved the use of fallow spectrum. On June 2, 2014, the FCC issued the TV Incentive Auction Report and Order. One of the highly controversial issues the FCC addressed was providing regulatory certainty for the ecosystem of database providers and innovative radio equipment vendors using unlicensed 600mHz spectrum allocated by the FCC in an earlier 2010 order. The technology employed by this ecosystem is enabling spectrum efficiencies in other bands like 3.5gHz and is now authorized to be utilized for licensed but fallow spectrum.

The FCC 2010 order opened up unused TV spectrum for unlicensed agile radios first called TV white space devices. The FCC encouraged innovators to invest in designing and manufacturing the new agile spectrum sharing radios with extremely strict out-of-band limitations to prevent interference to TV stations in adjacent channels. Because the TV stations' assigned channels vary by micro-geography, meaning from town to town, a cloud-based spectrum access system database was required to be constantly connected to the radios to ensure that when the radios were used in the micro-geography, the channel selected by the agile radio was not one assigned to a TV channel. Software database cloud providers like iConectiv (Ericsson), Google, Spectrum Bridge, and Microsoft (News - Alert) followed the FCC's guidance and built cloud-based spectrum access system databases that are used to direct the agile broadband radios to unused TV spectrum.   

In 2012, Congress ordered the FCC to auction some of the unused 600mHz TV spectrum the FCC had just assigned in 2010 to the new unlicensed cloud-directed ecosystem. The FCC both took and gave in the June 2014 order. For example, the FCC provided regulatory certainty to the unlicensed ecosystem, by assigning several nationwide bands for unlicensed use. Before the order, the largest cities like New York City and Washington, D.C., were so heavily populated by TV stations that there was little bandwidth available. Now, after the auction, the agile radios will have spectrum nationwide and will continue to have significant swaths of unused, former TV spectrum, in the rural areas. The FCC also took away for auction some of the 600mHz spectrum.

In a break from the past less-efficient use of spectrum, the FCC broke new ground, approving the use by the agile broadband radios of spectrum auctioned to mobile licensees but not yet turned up and operating. Various proponents of spectrum efficiencies have contended that where spectrum is licensed but not used – in other words spectrum in geographies where no cell sites are operating and there are no bars showing on a mobile device – that the unused spectrum should be available for use by others pending operation. 

In the past, such use could arguably have resulted in interference if the geographical licensed area was turned up but the unlicensed users did not move to another spectrum band. However, with the ability for the FCC to instantly deliver information to the unlicensed agile radios through the cloud databases directing the agile radios to automatically and instantly move off newly used mobile, there is no longer any likelihood of interference.

Since the early 1980s, the FCC has either licensed free of charge or auctioned large swaths of spectrum across the country. Some of the spectrum has been built out, but as we all know when driving through some rural areas like Western Massachusetts, some of the spectrum lies fallow. 

The FCC now has the tools developed by the TV white spaces ecosystem, in the form of a cloud database directing agile radios, to open up all the poorly used fallow spectrum. The cloud-database technology is designed to even operate on very small micro-geographies down to 50 meters to accommodate wireless microphones. Such capability would potentially allow the use of fallow spectrum in very small geographies such as between two towers where mobile device bars drop to zero and the call is lost.

Barlow Keener (News - Alert) is the principal with Keener Law Group out of Boston.

Edited by Maurice Nagle