Despite his enthusiasm for federalising any policy that touches on telecoms, big footing state and local governments isn’t at the top of Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai’s 5G wish list. Pai and three of his fellow commissioners spoke at CES in Las Vegas earlier this week. When asked about the main barriers to widespread deployment of 5G broadband service, Pai listed cost, spectrum and the availability of trained construction crews.
Although there’s not a lot that a telecoms regulator can do about workforce training or construction costs, spectrum availability is the FCC’s core responsibility.
Pai promised to “push” more frequencies, licensed and unlicensed, into the broadband market. But opening up new spectrum for broadband means taking it away from or sharing it with other users, which quickly devolves into a zero sum game in Washington, D.C.
The satellite industry stands to lose 280 MHz of spectrum in the 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz ranges – AKA the “C” band. The FCC plans to auction off those frequencies to mobile carriers for exclusive, licensed use, presumably later this year.
The FCC has a plan to repurpose 45 MHz in the 5.9 GHz range, transferring it from the automotive industry and opening it up for WiFi and similar unlicensed uses. Carmakers “had not lived up to the promise” of their 75 MHz of dedicated short range communications (DSRC) spectrum, said Geoffrey Starks, the lone democratic commissioner to speak at CES. The FCC’s plan would assign 20 MHz of the balance to cellular-type vehicular communications – C-V2X in the jargon – and maybe leave 10 MHz for whatever uses the automotive industry eventually develops for DSRC. Or maybe not – WiFi has a huge fan base.
Sharing is contentious in D.C. because it’s often federal agencies that are being asked to give up exclusive use of frequencies they’ve had to themselves for decades. “I’ve learned in Washington there are three things you don’t discuss three things in polite society, religion, politics and sharing of spectrum”, Pai said.