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FCC puts a pin in 4.9 GHz leasing changes

The Federal Communications Commission has delayed the implementation of new leasing rules for the 4.9 GHz band used by public safety that were passed under the Trump administration, and it will reconsider them.

In the fall of 2020, the FCC had voted along party lines to expand the use of the 4.9 GHz band, over objections from public safety users. The new leasing rules laid out at the time would allow a single, statewide licensee in each state to lease some or all of its spectrum rights to third parties, either public safety or non-public safety, commercial and private entities.

The 4.9 GHz spectrum, which consists of 50 megahertz (4.940-4.990 GHz), was designated for exclusive use by public safety for fixed and mobile services back in the early 2000s. That spectrum was allowed to be shared with non-traditional public safety responders. Under the Trump administration and then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC voted to drop the requirement that the spectrum be used for public safety-related activities. The GOP majority on the commission supported the view that due to the high cost of equipment in the band and the fact that its use is mostly confined to a few metropolitan areas, the spectrum was underutilized and states ought to be allowed to use it to “best meet their unique needs,” as the FCC said in a statement. According to the agency at the time, the expanded options for licensees — which could include commercial operators, electric utilities or FirstNet — would also expand the equipment ecosystem and bring down deployment costs.

Some of the changes technically went into effect in December 2020, but a new section that allows the designation of one state lessor had not yet become a final rule — and for now, it won’t.

Groups including the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance, APCO International and National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) had petitioned the FCC to reconsider the new rules, arguing that the new leasing framework didn’t provide sufficiently for current and future public safety use of the band. A group of 10 public safety organizations told the FCC last year that “it would be a mistake to put state governments in a position to lease the 4.9 GHz spectrum for commercial purposes” and that the action would “effectively reallocate the 4.9 GHz band from public safety without explicitly admitting as much.”

The Public Safety Spectrum Alliance, formed last year, had advocated for 4.9 GHz to be added to the FirstNet Authority’s spectrum holdings in support of the national public safety broadband network that is being deployed and operated by AT&T. According to the alliance, there are about 3,200 existing licensees in the 4.9 GHz band and the spectrum is primarily used for point-to-point high speed backhaul.

Now, the FCC under Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has expressed concerns that “allowing use of the band to become fragmented on a state-by-state basis could create incentives for individual states to make use of the spectrum for revenue generation in ways that do not serve the interests of public safety, decreasing the likelihood of interoperable communications for public-safety users …” and that such fragmentation “may undermine the ability of operators to upgrade their networks to improve public safety offerings and make more efficient use of spectrum resources. … We believe the most effective way to further the public interest is by ensuring that we provide certainty before any leasing agreements are entered into or systems are deployed.”

Rosenworcel had previously voted against the new leasing rules, criticizing them as “slapdash effort to try to foster use of this spectrum by giving states the right to divert public safety communications in exchange for revenue” and arguing that it would cause state-by-state fragmentation of the use of the airwaves and likely see very similar issues to those that arose in the 2.5 GHz “educational use” spectrum, which ended up mostly being leased by educational institutions to wireless carriers (most notably, the former Sprint) for revenue, rather than being utilized for educational purposes. “There’s no reason to think that the same policies that failed to fix the 2.5 GHz band will magically fix the 4.9 GHz band,” Rosenworcel said at the time.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican who had voted in favor of the leasing rule change when it was implemented under Pai, was the only one to dissent in the decision to stay the rule change.

“In the 4.9 GHz band, it was clear that the status quo was not working. After almost two decades,
that 50 MHz swath of spectrum remained woefully underutilized,” Carr said, arguing that the FCC’s new rules had “established a framework that could allow more intensive uses to flourish, including for public safety, by empowering local leaders to determine the best options for this spectrum based on their own circumstances. While I would have preferred even greater flexibility, last year’s order was a step in the right direction. Indeed, Louisiana is
now actively pursuing this option through a bill that is moving through its state legislature.”

He said he was “disappointed that the Commission’s decision to stay our 4.9 GHz band order will return
this spectrum to the broken framework of the past,” but said that he remained “hopeful that we can find a way to
quickly put a beneficial framework back in place. And I am open to working with my colleagues, the
public safety community, and all other stakeholders on doing exactly that.”

ABOUT AUTHOR

Kelly Hill
Kelly reports on network test and measurement, as well as the use of big data and analytics. She first covered the wireless industry for RCR Wireless News in 2005, focusing on carriers and mobile virtual network operators, then took a few years’ hiatus and returned to RCR Wireless News to write about heterogeneous networks and network infrastructure. Kelly is an Ohio native with a masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she focused on science writing and multimedia. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian and The Canton Repository. Follow her on Twitter: @khillrcr

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