FCC moves forward on plans for a new 4G auction using shared airwaves

The big news coming out of the FCC’s open meeting on Monday was the opening up of new unlicensed airwaves, boosting the amount of capacity available to your Wi-Fi router. But the FCC threw a bone to mobile carriers as well. The commission laid out the basic framework for a new wireless auction that would bring 65 MHz of new 4G airwaves to the mobile industry.

There’s a catch, though. Not all of these airwaves would necessarily be exclusive to the carriers who buy them. The FCC wants to make this new band, called Advanced Wireless Services-3 (AWS-3), the first shared band between commercial networks and government systems. Regulators, carriers and government agencies are still working out the details on how frequencies will be shared and which frequencies government users will vacate entirely. Congress, however, has mandated that the auction occur by early next year.

The carriers aren’t very hot on the idea of spectrum sharing, though AT&T(s t), Verizon(s vz) and T-Mobile(s tmus) have agreed to test out the practice in theory. Mobile industry group CTIA maintains that spectrum sharing may be technically possible, but it may not be commercially viable given the difficulty of planning such networks around government systems.

Source: Shutterstock / Pavel Ignatov

Source: Shutterstock / Pavel Ignatov

Still, if the government and the carriers can come to an amicable agreement, these airwaves could become critical components of the country’s 4G infrastructure. They would become part of the same AWS band in which Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile are building capacity-intensive LTE footprints. One of the rules the FCC set today is that devices in the AWS-3 band would be interoperable on today’s AWS networks, so that capacity could easily be added to their current 4G services.

The proceeds of the auction would also help pay for FirstNet, a government mobile broadband network designed to interconnect all of the country’s public safety and emergency response agencies on a single communications system.

The FCC also decided that it would auction off the spectrum in mixture of big and small blocks in a combination of big and small geographic areas. That will make the auction more attractive to smaller regional operators, who can after licenses in smaller markets, and T-Mobile, who can bid on smaller chunks of spectrum.