About a year ago, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposing to subdivide the 900 MHz band into a broadband segment and two narrowband segments. The broadband segment would be 3 MHz x 3 MHz from 897.5-900.5 MHz/936.5-939.5 MHZ. The two narrowband segments would consist of 1 ½ MHz x 1 ½ MHz segments (896-897.5/935-936.5 MHZ) below the broadband segment and ½ x ½ MHz segments (900.5-901/939.5-940 MHz) above the broadband segment.
This would differ significantly from the current composition of the band, which includes 159 site-based channel 12 ½ kHz pairs and twenty 10-channel pair systems for a total of 359 pairs.
The predecessor to Anterix – pDv – filed a petition for rulemaking in 2014 outlining its proposal to establish the 3 MHz x 3 MHz broadband allocation. Under the proposal, site-based 900 MHz licensees in this portion of the band would have to be relocated to comparable frequencies in the narrowband segment. At roughly the same time, pDv acquired many 900 MHz SMR licenses in several large metropolitan areas. These 10 MHz channels were previously held by Sprint. The company also is working on agreements with narrowband licensees around the country to acquire their 900 MHz licenses consistent with the FCC’s rules governing the assignment of 900 MHz licensees.
The ultimate objective is to establish the 3 x 3 MHz broadband channel to provide service directly to critical infrastructure firms or lease this swath of spectrum. But before a 3 MHz x 3 MHz broadband allocation can become a reality, it is necessary to accommodate incumbents in the 900 MHz band.
The degree to which the 900 MHz band is licensed and is in use around the country varies dramatically. Several large “NFL cities” have modest use of the 900 MHz band and many rural areas have little to no operations in the band. However, several major metropolitan areas rely extensively on the 900 MHz narrowband channels. Relocating incumbents to the narrowband portion of the rebanded 900 MHz band – or finding similar dedicated spectrum to meet the needs of all incumbents – could prove incredibly challenging, if not impossible, in some of these areas. These saturated markets with several incumbents may prove to be the biggest hurdle to Anterix securing its requested rule changes from the FCC.
Projecting outcomes of FCC proceedings is always risky. But one helpful way to consider and project likely outcomes of this proceeding may be through brief summaries of the various positions that have been espoused by different parties throughout this proceeding.
Critical Infrastructure Supporters of the NPRM. Many investor owned utilities expressed interest in having access to the 3 MHz x 3 MHz channel for a range of data applications.
Critical Infrastructure 900 MHz Licensees. By contrast, some utilities that operate multi-site 900 MHz systems have argued that relocating 900 MHz incumbents would be extremely challenging. Some of these licensees are adamant that the FCC should not adopt Anterix’s proposed rule changes, while others are indifferent to the proposal if comparable facilities can be obtained by Anterix on behalf of existing 900 MHz licensees.
Another major sticking point for the parties is how the FCC would require incumbent relocation. Several parties have suggested the Commission permit voluntary relocation and arms-length negotiations between Anterix and existing licensees. The Commission is also considering adopting mandatory relocation procedures to ensure the 3 MHz x 3 MHz broadband allocation comes to fruition even if commercial negotiations fail.
Either way, an FCC decision is expected soon.