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FCC considers wireless future with high-spectrum bands, auction outlook

The Federal Communications Commission voted Feb. 22 to initiate a proceeding focused on opening up certain high-spectrum bands for commercial use that have long been considered the outermost horizon of the usable spectrum range.

The commission voted unanimously to move forward on a notice of proposed rulemaking that aims to expand access to spectrum above 95 GHz, though some also expressed reservations about the FCC's current approach to opening up more spectrum. The FCC's proposal seeks comment on making a total of 102.2 gigahertz of spectrum available for licensed point-to-point services. These bands would be licensed on a nationwide, nonexclusive basis, and a database manager would be established to keep track of licensees. The proposal also seeks comment on making a total of 15.2 gigahertz of spectrum available for unlicensed devices.

Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said he worried the FCC might be acting too soon on spectrum above 95 GHz given that the technology for these bands is "nascent, to put it gently." He added that creating rules around this spectrum "feels like designing zoning laws for the moon."

Meanwhile, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said that while the FCC has done a lot in recent months to open up new bands for exploration, it needs to turn more attention to how to get this spectrum into operators' hands.

"What we need now is not more studying and rulemaking. We need action," she said, calling on the commission to announce a spectrum auction and put it on the calendar.

During a press conference after the FCC's Feb. 22 open meeting, Chairman Ajit Pai reiterated that a key hurdle to holding any auction is a requirement in the Communications Act stipulating that the FCC deposit any upfront payments from bidders in spectrum auctions in "an interest bearing account at a financial institution." Private institutions have expressed less interest in holding these upfront payments in recent years, and public institutions have declined to set up the special purpose accounts necessary to offer such services. Pai has urged Congress to change the law so that deposits from spectrum auctions bidders can be sent to the Treasury Department.

"We need a Congressional fix in order to solve that problem," Pai said Feb. 22, noting that the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently moved forward on a bill that would address this issue. That bill would still need to pass the full House, the Senate and get approved by the president before it can become law.

Rosenworcel suggested during the press conference that the FCC does not necessarily need to wait for a legislative solution, however. "We clearly found a way around [this issue] in last year's 600 MHz auction. We just need to be creative here, and our unwillingness to be creative is a choice to cede our leadership to the rest of the world," she said.

She noted that South Korea has a midband spectrum auction scheduled for June while "a handful of other countries" are also planning auctions in 2018.

Rosenworcel suggested reaching out to the banks that worked with the FCC on the recent broadcast incentive auction and placing deposits in multiple banks rather than just one as a potential strategy.

Also during the meeting, the FCC adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking that looks to implement rules around the commission's review of petitions or applications for new technologies. The rules aim to speed up the review process to comply with Section 7 of the Communications Act, which requires the commission to determine whether a newly proposed technology is in the public interest within one year of its petition or application being filed.

The commission also moved forward on its effort to streamline outdated rules, voting to eliminate rules around payphone data collection and also adopting a notice of proposed rulemaking that aims to eliminate the Broadcast Mid-Term Report for TV and radio stations. The midterm report, also known as Form 397, contains information about stations' Equal Employment Opportunity practices. According to the FCC, this form is duplicative because the information is already provided in FCC-maintained online public files.

Finally, the FCC also unveiled Feb. 22 its new national broadband map. The map is based on the data collected for the FCC's "2018 Broadband Deployment Report," published earlier this month. In the report, the FCC found that as of year-end 2016, 92.3% of all Americans have access to fixed terrestrial broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps, up from 89.4% in 2014 and 81.2% in 2012.