FCC forwards plans for a shared small-cell band

It was a busy day for the Federal Communications Commission. It got through two big items: approving Dish Network’s(s dish) request to use its satellite spectrum for 4G and authorizing an auction of PCS spectrum that Sprint(s s) craves for its own LTE network. But after the dust cleared it took another noteworthy vote on the creation of the of spectrum band for small cells that would be shared by government, commercial and public users.

A small cell band would mean a dedicated swathe of spectrum in which carriers could deploy tiny cell sites, mounted on light poles or inside buildings, layering enormous amounts of capacity onto their 3G and 4G networks. Operators like Sprint and AT&T(s t) plan to deploy their first small cell systems in the coming years.

fccBut it’s not a done deal. By unanimous vote, the commission issued a notice for proposed rulemaking (NPRM), which means a lengthy commentary and response period going well into spring, and no timeline has been set for a final decision. But the FCC is did offer details on what shape the final band will take.

Basically the FCC would set aside 100 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band currently used by government agencies and satellite providers, and the give different sets of users priority in using the spectrum:

  • The incumbent government and satellite users would make up the first tier. Whenever they’re online in a particular portion of the band everyone else is offline.
  • The second tier is reserved for hospitals, utilities, government facilities and public safety agencies, which would be given priority access in specific geographic areas.
  • The third tier is basically anyone else. Established carriers and anyone who cared to set up a network would be able to deploy small cells in the geographic and spectral gaps that remain. Those carriers would have to tap into a dynamic spectrum database that would tell them when and where spectrum is available so they could stay away from the incumbent and priority users.

Generally carriers aren’t fond of sharing spectrum with anyone, particularly each other. We’ll find out what mobile operators really think about the proposal in the coming months as they file their comments, but the initial reaction from the industry is positive. Telecommunications Industry Association President Grant Seiffert issued this statement:

“The FCC’s adoption of the NPRM is a commendable and significant step towards addressing the looming spectrum crunch and meeting National goal of making 500 MHz newly available for broadband use within 10 year. After careful and exhaustive planning to avoid harmful interference occurrences within and surrounding it, we believe that the 3.5 GHz band could be used advantageously for small cell use, and that more efficient use of this band could help decrease congestion in other bands.”