Photo of Gregory E. Kunkle

2016 looks to be the year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will place its biggest bet on the value of spectrum and begin to see whether two novel approaches to spectrum management are hits or misses.

Later this year, the FCC will conduct its Broadcast Incentive Auction, whereby it will seek to transition a large amount of wireless spectrum from television broadcasters to wireless providers.  In a nutshell, the objective of the Incentive Auction is to incent TV broadcasters to sell their spectrum back to the FCC, which in turn will auction the spectrum to wireless carriers.  It’s a “never-been-done-before” type of endeavor with a big upside.   But it could also be an embarrassment if it doesn’t go as planned leaving one FCC Commissioner to state, he is “praying it is not a failure.”  The FCC’s willingness to go out on a limb shows the Commission sees a bigger risk in not addressing the Country’s increasing demand for spectrum by continuing to maintain the status quo.

The Broadcast Incentive Auction isn’t the only spectrum policy innovation that will play out this year. The FCC’s plan to implement a Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the 3.55-3.7 GHz band has garnered less attention from the press, but, if it works, it could prove valuable to multiple segments of the wireless industry.

Under its new CBRS rules, the Commission will largely turn management of the 150 MHz of spectrum at 3.55-3.7 GHz over to one or more yet-to-be-named third party database managers.  Those database managers would be responsible for dynamic assignment of operating parameters to users and licensees in real-time.  The band would be a mix of Federal incumbents, auctioned license winners, and unlicensed secondary users.

For their part, wireless carriers view the CBRS as providing access to a very large amount of spectrum that could be used for small cell and in-building coverage.  CBRS compatible chips in wireless devices would enable carriers to offload very high capacity applications from their wide area LTE networks in certain areas.  In theory, the dynamic channel assignment would allow more intensive use of the band than otherwise achievable through the conventional approach of exclusive licensing.

One criticism of the CBRS is that it replaces what had been a successful spectrum allocation at 3.65-3.7 GHz.  This band, which was allocated only less than ten years ago, was used by hundreds of licensees including wireless Internet Services Providers, electric utilities, oil and gas companies, and other industrial users for high-bandwidth services. It remains to be seen to what extent the CBRS will be suitable for these users.  One potential hurdle – if accessing the dynamic spectrum database requires critical infrastructure companies to connect sensitive control systems to the Internet, expect many of those entities to take their wireless applications to other bands due to cybersecurity concerns.

The CBRS is an experiment in spectrum policy.  As one Commissioner states, “Will it work? […] We will see.