The FCC's chairman on Wednesday issued two major new proposals for the agency to vote on during its next open meeting. One proposal would allocate billions of dollars to 5G providers in rural areas, but the other would prevent those 5G providers from licensing spectrum in the 6GHz band for their networks.
On the whole, the developments certainly move the ball forward on key topics in the US wireless industry, including bridging the digital divide and providing additional spectrum to Wi-Fi providers.
However, Chairman Ajit Pai's latest proposals make no mention of either Ligado or Anterix – two companies that are waiting for the FCC to issue rules that would pave the way for 4G and 5G operations in their respective spectrum holdings.
Pai's proposal for the 6GHz band is perhaps his most important item for the agency's April open meeting. It would set aside fully 1,200MHz for unlicensed operations in the 6GHz band – that development represents a setback to the likes of Verizon and CTIA, which had urged the FCC to allocate some of that spectrum for licensed operations, including 5G. However, it stands as a major win for companies in the Wi-Fi industry, as it would dramatically increase the amount of spectrum available for unlicensed Wi-Fi operations.
Indeed, for everyday Americans, Pai's proposal could ultimately result in significant improvements to in-home Wi-Fi networks by devoting more spectrum to such operations. Companies ranging from Aruba Networks to Boingo to Broadcom to Intel to Qualcomm voiced their support for Pai's proposal.
Interestingly, Pai's proposal would authorize two different types of unlicensed operations in 6GHz: standard-power operations in 850MHz of the band and indoor, low-power operations across the entire band. Pai proposed an automated frequency coordination system to prevent standard-power access points from operating where they could cause interference to incumbent services.
Federated Wireless – which is supplying an automated frequency coordination system – cheered the move.
However, Pai essentially set aside a proposition from Apple, Facebook and Google to allow "very low-power devices" to operate across the 6GHz band. The companies said their joint proposal would support 6GHz connections among wearable, augmented reality and virtual reality devices in the band. Pai said he would seek more commentary on that topic – essentially putting a pin in it for later.
5G in rural areas
Pai's other major proposal centers on a "5G Fund" that would pay operators up to $9 billion to deploy 5G services in rural parts of the country.
"The 5G Fund for rural America focuses on building out 5G networks in areas that likely would otherwise go unserved. It's critical that Americans living in rural communities have the same opportunities as everybody else," Pai said in a statement.
Pai said he will seek commentary from industry players on whether he should allocate that money in 2021 using the agency's existing broadband maps, or if he should wait until 2023 when the agency's maps are expected to improve.
Either way, Pai's new 5G Fund would sit alongside several other major efforts to upgrade telecom services in rural areas, including the agency's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that will begin allocating up to $20.4 billion later this year for telecom services, both wireless and wired.
The 5G Fund would also be separate from the agency's Huawei "rip and replace" program. Pai is asking Congress for up to $2 billion to fund that program, which would essentially pay rural US wireless network operators to rip out their equipment from China's Huawei and replace it with equipment from other, trusted sources.
Huawei has denied that its equipment poses a security threat, but US officials have loudly disagreed with that assertion.
The details of the FCC's Huawei "rip and replace" program are still being hashed out.
The full, five-member FCC is scheduled to vote on Pai's two proposals during its next open meeting, scheduled for April 23. Based on the agency's historical voting record, there's a good chance both proposals will pass with support from the agency's three Republican commissioners.