TR Daily FCC Adopts Rules for Spectrum Horizons Above 95 GHz
Friday, March 15, 2019

FCC Adopts Rules for Spectrum Horizons Above 95 GHz

The FCC adopted a first report and order today that makes available 21.2 gigahertz of spectrum for unlicensed use above 95 gigahertz and establishes a new class of experimental licenses for frequencies between 95 GHz and 3 terahertz.

“This spectrum has long been considered the outermost horizon of the usable spectrum range, but rapid advancements in radio technology have made these bands especially ripe for new development,” the Commission noted in a news release on the item, which was adopted in ET docket 18-21. “There are substantial opportunities for innovation in these frequencies, especially for data-intensive high-bandwidth applications as well as imaging and sensing operations. Prior to this decision, the Commission had no rules for authorizing communications above 95 GHz, other than by amateur operators or through experiments of limited duration and scope.

“To enable innovators and entrepreneurs to most readily access this spectrum, the Spectrum Horizons First Report and Order creates a new category of experimental licenses for use of frequencies between 95 GHz and 3 THz. These licenses will give innovators the flexibility to conduct experiments lasting up to 10 years, and to more easily market equipment during the experimental period,” the news release added.

“The item also makes a total of 21.2 gigahertz of spectrum available for use by unlicensed devices. The Commission selected bands with propagation characteristics that will permit large numbers of unlicensed devices to use the spectrum, while limiting the potential for interference to existing governmental and scientific operations in the above-95 GHz bands, such as space research and atmospheric sensing,” the FCC said.

The bands are the 116-123 GHz, 174.8-182 GHz, 185-190 GHz, and 244-246 GHz bands.

The news release said the rules adopted today provide “unprecedented opportunities for new experimental and unlicensed use in the frequencies above 95 GHz and will help ensure that the United States stays at the forefront of wireless innovation. Moreover, study of these uses could ultimately lead to further rulemaking actions and additional licensing opportunities within the Spectrum Horizons bands.”

In a notice of proposed rulemaking adopted last year in the proceeding, the FCC sought comments on rules to make spectrum above 95 GHz available on a licensed, unlicensed, and greater experimental basis (TR Daily, Feb. 22, 2018).

In response to the NPRM, terrestrial wireless and satellite entities disagreed on the rules. Meanwhile, unlicensed spectrum advocates asked that more spectrum be set aside for those uses and users of spectrum for scientific purposes warned about the potential for interference from unlicensed operations (TR Daily, May 3, 2018).

In a presentation at today’s FCC meeting, Ted Rappaport, founder and director of NYU WIRELESS, a research center at New York University that focuses on wireless communications and applications, called today’s FCC action “historic,” citing the huge bandwidths of spectrum above 95 GHz and possible applications for drones, robotics, automated vehicles, and holographic imaging.

He said that while it is a popular belief that there is greater spectrum “path loss” the higher one goes in the spectrum, that is not the case if directional antennas are used.

He said the higher bands can be used for mobile communications, Wi-Fi, and backhaul.

“Science fiction will become reality,” Mr. Rappaport added.

In comments on the item today, Commissioners Mike O’Rielly and Jessica Rosenworcel disagreed on whether the FCC prioritize in the future licensing spectrum above 95 GHz.

“Count me all in for efforts to provide spectrum to the wireless community to create the new, innovative technologies and applications of the future – even if they may be a few years away. I look forward to watching what America’s entrepreneurs, innovators, and scientists can do with frequencies above 95 GHz,” Mr. O’Rielly said. “These bands have their propagation challenges and, right now, we do not know what services they will support; but not too long ago people scoffed at the idea of commercial use in the millimeter waves. Therefore, I support allocating these frequencies for experimental and unlicensed use.

“While I strenuously advocate for both licensed and unlicensed spectrum opportunities, I understand that it may be a bit premature to establish exclusive-use licenses above 95 GHz when there is great uncertainty about what technologies will be introduced, what spectrum would be ideal, or what size channel blocks are needed,” Mr. O’Rielly added. “Therefore, I can support waiting to see what develops. Better that than being forced to undo a mess later. Further, I have been assured that the bands being allocated for unlicensed use in this item are not ideal for licensed services; therefore, today’s allocation should not interfere with future licensing activities.”

During a news conference after today’s FCC meeting, Mr. O’Rielly said, “Certainly, we’ll have to have licensed bands above 95 GHz, in my opinion.”

Ms. Rosenworcel said that “[a]t the upper bounds, signals over these airwaves may not travel much further than from one end of this dais to the other before losing their strength. Moreover, there are no existing systems to protect in much of this spectrum. Plus, these high frequencies permit the use of newer antenna designs, like quasi-optical antennas, which allow transmitters to better control the direction of their signals. Add all this up, and the likelihood of interference is too low to justify a traditional approach with high administrative costs.

“To this end, I do not believe that this order gets it quite right when it suggests that the frequencies above 95 GHz are suitable for licensed use. I am pleased that we do not take up such an approach in today’s decision. I believe that with these way-up-there frequencies, where the potential for interference is so low, we should flip the script,” Ms. Rosenworcel added. “The burden should be on those seeking exclusive licenses to demonstrate the interference case and justify why we should carve up an otherwise open space for innovation and experimentation. So I hope we can continue with a modern approach to spectrum allocation that is better suited to these far flung frequencies.”

Ms. Rosenworcel added, “Finally, it is worth noting that the spectrum we work with here is different from our lower frequency bands in another important way — much of it is subject to the authority of both this agency and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. As recent experience demonstrates, we need more meaningful and transparent coordination with our federal partners so that we can realize the full opportunities in these stratospheric airwaves. Otherwise, I fear that opportunities for new experimental operations could be blocked and important scientific research could be diminished.”

“Opening previously unused bands of spectrum can spur unexpected innovation. In the most authentic sense, we step into the unknown today. While today’s action is bold, we also must act smartly,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. “As we modernize our approach to these bands, we should also modernize our approach to a problem that will demand our attention: harmful interference. It’s happened before. As we have authorized new technologies or the use of new bands of spectrum, we have encountered unexpected interference, whether it is interference to wireless calls from consumer signal boosters or LED lights, unauthorized operations in the recently-authorized Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) band or interference to weather radar operations from unlicensed wireless broadband transmission systems. In each instance, unexpected interference issues required the Commission to investigate the situation and respond, whether with enforcement actions, policy changes, or both.

“Thus, as we look to the future today, we should consider how we will address the interference issues that will inevitably arise. This comports well with a core mission of the Commission and one of my overall goals: to support rules that are clear and well-defined so that if any infractions occur, we can address it and hold any violators accountable,” Mr. Starks added. “To that end, I would like to highlight two important points: the Commission’s interference resolution capabilities and its spectrum management policies.

“First, the FCC has a critical role in detecting and resolving interference issues. Once the Commission authorizes service in a band, parties can and do reasonably expect that their operations in that band will be free from harmful interference in violation of our rules. Our talented staff in the Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) work hard to set technical standards to ensure just that. And, where needed, the Enforcement Bureau’s hard-working agents and attorneys investigate and take appropriate action. But the Commission’s staff cannot investigate without the necessary tools and training. Today we open up bands above 95 GHz, including terahertz bands ranging up to 3 THz. The plain fact of the matter, though, is that I have serious questions about the Enforcement Bureau’s tools to detect interference in these and other high-frequency bands. In fact, we are not currently capable of policing a significant amount of millimeter wave spectrum – the very high-frequency bands critical for 5G. I am concerned that without dedicated and sufficient resources to developing 21st Century enforcement tools against interference, our efforts to promote 5G will be undermined,” Mr. Starks stressed.

“Second, we must continue to evaluate whether we should reconsider our approach to spectrum management, for both new and existing bands,” according to Mr. Starks. “Spectrum is the foundation for innovation, and as we make more spectrum available, we must ensure that our rules maximize the use of all our bands. How do we get the most out of our new and existing spectrum? OET has already asked that question. In February 2017, in response to a recommendation from the agency’s Technological Advisory Council (TAC), OET sought comment on whether the agency should adopt a policy statement setting forth spectrum management guidance and principles.”

“Today, we take big steps towards making productive use of this spectrum,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “We allocate a massive 21 gigahertz for unlicensed use and we create a new category of experimental licenses. This will give innovators strong incentives to develop new technologies using these airwaves while also protecting existing uses. These steps are groundbreaking, but I’m confident that there will be more ground to break. We will continue to watch the development of spectrum horizons, including for potential non-experimental, licensed uses of spectrum above 95 GHz in the future. And we will continue to act boldly so that the United States continues to lead the world in wireless innovation.”

“One reason the U.S. leads the world in wireless is that we’ve moved quickly to open up new spectrum bands for innovative uses. We don’t wait around for technologies to develop fully before unlocking spectrum so that entrepreneurs have the incentives to invest and experiment,” Commissioner Brendan Carr said. “You can see it with our steps in the 1980s to identify unlicensed spectrum, which years later allowed Wi-Fi to flourish. You can see it in the early 2000s when we freed up spectrum above 40 GHz, which is commonly used today for vehicle radar and other technologies. And you can see it when we opened up millimeter wave spectrum back when many still doubted that it could support 5G. We continue this trend today by giving entrepreneurs greater access to spectrum above 95 GHz, which is already home to a number of pioneering technologies. This will help ensure that innovators in the U.S. have the incentives to invest and develop new technologies for the benefit of all Americans.”

“The Commission struck the right balance by declining to exclusively license any spectrum about 95 GHz and instead opening it for unlicensed and experimental uses,” said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “We fully agree with Commissioner Rosenworcel’s observation that because interference is unlikely at such high frequencies, and because the best use cases remain unknown, this spectrum should be wide open for experimentation and shared use for the foreseeable future.”

Mike Marcus, a consultant and former FCC official who has long urged the Commission to open up spectrum above 95 GHz, said “it is gratifying that the FCC acted on this matter in just slightly over 1 year – a speed that demonstrated its commitment to this rapidly emerging area.”

But he added that the draft of the item did not address certain issues and that the Commission did not indicate when they would be addressed, including licensed rules for mobile and fixed use of the spectrum, RF safety limits, a contiguous bandwidth of 20 GHz or more, regulatory certainty for terahertz spectroscopy device certifications, and the modification of a footnote to replace the current ban on operations in certain bands to protect passive spectrum systems.- Paul Kirby, [email protected]


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