FCC suggests commercial or robot usage of underutilized 4.9 GHz safety band

The FCC is considering opening up the 4.9 GHz public safety band for 5G, potentially to support specialized allocations for low latency, critical communications applications such as drone and robot operations in future.

This would be a good example of a regulator considering options to enable 5G to fulfil its objectives of supporting a diverse range of enterprise use cases rather than just an increasingly fat and generic mobile broadband pipe (see lead item). However, it would be controversial, given that 4.9 GHz is already allocated for a critical application, safety.

However, the FCC considers the band has “fallen short of its potential” in that sector because, according to its filing, out of “nearly 90,000 public safety entities eligible … to obtain licenses in the band, there were only 2,442 licenses in use in 2012 and only 3,174 licenses in 2018.”

Under the plans it is considering, existing public safety license holders would be ‘grandfathered in’ on the band.

The regulator is asking for comment on various options to make better use of the 4.9 GHz band and harness it “wholly or partially, to support commercial wireless use”. Increasingly, midband spectrum between 3 GHz and 6 GHz, once seen as too high frequency to support cost-effective mobile roll-outs, are coveted for their capacity, and the potential to support high capacity localized or vertically optimized networks of small cells (given the limited range of these bands).

The FCC asked: “For example, would the public interest be best served if this spectrum could be used for commercial applications, such as 5G, or would it be better to strike a balance between public safety and commercial uses?”

Other options under consideration include light licensing, on a similar basis to the licensed portion of the CBRS 3.5 GHz band; or moving robots – commercial or police robots – into the band, out of their current place in the nearby, but unlicensed, 5 GHz.

The FCC suggests that robots could “enhance first responder safety by allowing users to send remote controlled, camera-equipped mobile devices into potentially dangerous situations.” Some channels are also proposed for drone operations.