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Biden wants to claw back, flog off 1.5GHz of spectrum

Good news, unless trees or walls get in the way

Wireless spectrum is a finite and tightly regulated resource and that makes it a hot commodity anytime one of the standards bodies opens another swath of it to auction.

And that's just what America's National Telecommunications and Information Administration plans to do. The agency wants to identify and reclaim 1,500MHz of spectrum for use by public and private purposes. In pursuit of this goal, the agency is soliciting comment on frequency selection, long-term spectrum planning, and ways to pack more information in existing systems.

"Our airwaves are a valuable resource and we need a whole-of-government plan for managing them and using them. That is why this kind of long-term spectrum planning is so important," FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement released Wednesday.

While a boon for telecommunications vendors and service providers, the additional spectrum also addresses a challenge for the Biden administration.

"I think the major driver here is the Spectrum Reallocation bill that's on the hill, and the empty pipeline that we have." he said. "I think they want to preempt embarrassing questions," namely that they don't have a plan for that spectrum it might free up, Roger Entner, lead analyst at Recon Analytics told The Register.

The NTIA's plan would address that by establishing a spectrum pipeline to address growing demand for spectrum.

There's also the question of where the NTIA is actually going to find 1,500MHz of useful spectrum. Various radio frequencies are better suited to some applications than others after all.

Spectrum below 6GHz is pretty crowded as it stands as its ideal for high-speed and reliable communications. Meanwhile, there's plenty of spectrum in the millimeter wave (mmWave) particularly between 7-60GHz. However, as anyone who's used Verizon's mmWave 5G network will know, it's not the greatest if you need to punch a signal through walls or dense foliage.

In any many respects, spectrum is a bit like real estate, Entner explained. "The lower the frequency, the closer you are to a lake, and with mmWave, you're stuck in a desert," he said. "Traditionally, in the mmWave band, there weren't a lot of viable solutions."

However, thanks to technological advancements in radio technology, higher frequencies are becoming more useful, he said, adding that because of this NTIA is likely to target the lower-end of the 7GHz to 60GHz range.

Beware the 'yahoos' in charge

Of course even after the NTIA carves off a chunk of spectrum for auction, that doesn't mean there aren't potential pitfalls. Sometimes spectrum overlaps with that used by other agencies, leading to safety concerns. We saw this play out after the FAA warned that 5G deployments could interfere with radar altimeters.

In this regard, Entner is cautiously optimistic. "I wouldn't expect that… but with some of these yahoos in charge, who are not wireless regulators or wireless experts, you never know," he said of potential pitfalls.

While it's not clear what spectrum US regulators will reclaim, we know the NTIA intends to use it for everything from fixed-wireless broadband services, next-generation satellite communications, advanced transportation communications technologies, and other "critical government missions," to name just a handful.

Entner expects that small-cells will likely be the primary use case for much of this spectrum. As their name suggests, small cells are relatively small cellular transmitters designed to service a limited area, ranging from as little as 30 feet to about a mile depending on how and where they're deployed. Small cells are often deployed atop municipal poles in suburban environments.

While Entner sees the move as a generally positive one for US providers, the question on his mind is how long will it take to make this spectrum available. ®

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