Inform[ED]™ Wireless Tackles Spectrum Policy with FCC Commissioners

Inform[ED]™ Wireless Tackles Spectrum Policy with FCC Commissioners Rob Alderfer

Rob Alderfer
VP, Technology Policy

Jun 1, 2016

Last month in New York, CableLabs hosted its inaugural Inform[ED] Wireless conference, where we gathered leaders and luminaries to chart the evolution of wireless networks. Consumers’ appetite for wireless continues to grow, and fixed networks - like cable and its Wi-Fi assets - become ever more important to satisfying their needs.

The program was holistic, touching on business strategy, technology, and of course policy, which is fundamental to the future of wireless. Spectrum is the key enabler of our wireless future, and we were fortunate to hear what the FCC has in store from Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O’Reilly, in a conversation facilitated by NCTA Executive Vice President James Assey.

Unlicensed Spectrum, Past and Future

Commissioner Rosenworcel began by grounding the group in some history, noting that Wi-Fi as we know and love it today is, essentially, a happy policy accident. In liberalizing the 2.4 GHz frequency band for wider unlicensed uses in the 1980s, the FCC could not imagine the industry-driven innovation that would take place in what were then considered ‘junk bands’.

Now that Wi-Fi has become consumers’ on-ramp to digital opportunity, the FCC is much more intentionally building on that success. Commissioner O’Reilly noted the substantial opportunity to usher in next-generation gigabit Wi-Fi by opening new bandwidth in the critical 5 GHz frequency band. A portion of 5 GHz is used by Wi-Fi today; by expanding the spectrum available there, consumers would win big through improved broadband speed and capacity.

To make that happen, the FCC is considering how Wi-Fi should share spectrum with another service, known as Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC). DSRC received a 5 GHz spectrum allocation in 1999, and is envisioned by the auto industry to provide vehicle-to-vehicle communications. Since it has not yet been deployed, it is the perfect time to determine spectrum sharing regime.

CableLabs has written on this topic, providing the technical foundation for the progress that is possible here, just as we have driven forward Wi-Fi spectrum opportunities previously. Working together, with outspoken leaders like the Commissioners Rosenworcel and O’Reilly, we should be able to turn that possibility of progress on 5 GHz into reality.

Growing the Pie Through Sharing

There are no easy wins in spectrum policy. As demand for wireless grows across sectors and services, sharing the spectrum more efficiently becomes increasingly important. By enabling more dynamic use of the spectrum – particularly in frequencies used by the Federal government, according to Commissioner O’Reilly – we can grow the pie for new uses, instead of trying to carve up smaller, unsatisfying slices.

Commissioner Rosenworcel noted that the FCC is moving forward with an approach that would do just that. In the 3.5 GHz frequency band, new commercial uses will be enabled later this year, which will share the spectrum with U.S. Naval radar systems through a database-driven access architecture. When the Navy isn’t sailing nearby, consumers will be able use the spectrum.

CableLabs is doing research in this area under an experimental license from the FCC. We are also helping to build the all-important access database architecture through the industry body that is leading the effort, known as the WinnForum.

To the Next Frontier

There is much buzz in the industry about ‘5G’ – the next generation of mobile technology – which is likely to use spectrum in higher frequencies than have been typical to date. These are the ‘spectrum frontiers’, where no mobile system has yet ventured, but will be integral to network densification and capacity augmentation, and will drive fixed/mobile convergence.

Commissioners O’Reilly and Rosenworcel both expressed a desire for the US to take a leadership role in 5G development, which the FCC will assist by making new ‘spectrum frontiers’ available – including the 28 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 60 GHz bands – as early as this summer.

Research in this area is progressing apace, and 3GPP, the mobile standards body in which CableLabs participates, is beginning to specify the details of what 5G will look like. But ultimately, progress toward 5G will depend on spectrum availability, in the US and abroad. The International Telecommunications Union is gearing up to address this in 2019. By the sound of it, the FCC will be well down the path toward these new frontiers by then.