In Party Line Vote, FCC to Enable States to Lease 4.9 GHZ to Utilities, Others


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In a meeting rife with disagreements and connectivity snafus, the FCC Wednesday adopted rules permitting expanded use of 50 megahertz of mid-band spectrum in the 4.9 GHz (4940-4990 MHz) band. The agency majority says the band used by public safety agencies is underused. However scores of fire, police and medical representatives told the Commission the change threatens the public, especially during a pandemic.

Under the new rules, states could lease the spectrum to third parties such as utilities, FirstNet and commercial operators to boost wireless broadband, improve critical infrastructure monitoring, and facilitate public safety use cases. The band has been dedicated for public safety use for 18 years; however, only about 3.5 percent of all potential licensees use it this way because of restrictions, according to Chairman Ajit Pai.

He called the current rules governing the 4.9 GHz band flawed: “The Commission’s rules put the spectrum in a silo which led to a limited amount of niche specific equipment available for use in the band. The story of the 4.9 GHz band became one of spectrum haves, primarily in large cities such as New York City, Los Angeles and Seattle and have-nots, namely the 96.5 percent of potential licensees that have not obtained licenses for the 4.9 GHz spectrum, particularly the smaller and rural jurisdictions that cannot afford to deploy in that band.” 

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly called the band “vastly underutilized, and not just a little bit.” The changes, he said, shouldn’t be considered controversial. “I certainly respect and support our public safety officials and truly appreciate all that they do to protect our communities.” However, he continued, “No Commission should let spectrum lay fallow based on the notion that someday the allocation just might possibly be used widely for its intended purposes,” said O’Rielly. “The messages of ‘We intend to use it for — if certain conditions are met or it will be needed some day,’ are no longer credible or sufficient.” 

Agency Minority Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks voted against the item. Rosenworcel called it “unfortunate,” “not the right way forward” and a “slapdash effort to try to foster use of this spectrum by giving states the right to divert public safety communications in exchange for revenue,” noting that wireless carriers and public safety officials oppose the changes.

With this decision, Rosenworcel said, “We clear the way to kick First Responders off the spectrum and seek this agency’s authority over the band to state licensees who will be empowered to lease these airwaves to third parties to generate revenue. The resulting patchwork of state leases will further fragment the equipment market, raise costs and decrease the likelihood of interoperable communications.”

Referencing wildfires, hurricanes, civil unrest and COVID deaths, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said: “Safety organizations are stretched to their limit and their communication needs are increasing. This Commission is adopting with no notice and comment an approach I think is not only unwanted, but runs contrary to years of public safety spectrum policy.” The band is “far from” a prime candidate for 5G use in the U.S., and while the Commission considered several options, “today’s approach comes out of the blue.”

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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