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5 August 2019

New FCC rules for 900 MHz will support new private network operators

While 5G and the opening up of midband spectrum is relieving the spectrum shortage for operators in most parts of the world, the US MNOs remain starved of the best bands to support a strong business case (see separate item). To make matters worse, they are facing new competitors, not just Dish and the cablecos, but the rise of private network operators, often targeting the enterprise and industrial applications which MNOs have often failed to address. These specialized providers will also be looking for licensed spectrum, for those services which are too mission critical to trust to shared bands, and the FCC is showing itself ready to consider some radical changes to some areas of the spectrum to encourage these new operators.

An important example is the 900 MHz band, whose plan has not been updated for more than 30 years. The FCC is proposing changes which would make it suitable for LTE, especially for industrial, IoT and private networks, and enterprise-focused operator  Anterix is hopeful of leading the market once it can use its spectrum for broadband.

In most parts of the world, 900 MHz was used for 2G, while the sub-GHz unlicensed ISM spectrum was a bit further down, at 868 MHz. In the USA, the 900 MHz band was allocated for narrowband wireless, with a mixture of licensed and unlicensed usage. But companies like Anterix (formerly called pdvWireless) have been lobbying for years for it to be realigned to support LTE broadband wireless, with narrowband incumbents being moved to other spectrum within the band.

Most of the providers eyeing the spectrum for LTE would target private industrial and IoT networks, including those supporting critical communications. They are represented by the Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA)

Anterix’s CEO, Morgan O’Brien, said in response to the FCC’s notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on this band, issued in March: “We believe that realigning the 900 MHz band will create opportunities for robust broadband networks that fully support critical communication systems and that ensure the low latency and ultra-high reliability required by electric and other utilities, as well as other B/ILT (business/industry land transportation) and SMR (Specialized Mobile Radio) spectrum users.”

In the FCC’s proposed scheme, up to 16 channels would be licensed in the band, for 15-year terms, and in 177 geographic areas. Companies who buy the licences would be required to set up two-way networks on the channels.

Anterix is hopeful that it will be in a strong position to buy spectrum on a nationwide basis. It recently raised a round of funding worth $100m partly because of the track record of its founders, O’Brien and Brian McAuley, who were also the co-founders of Nextel (and its CEO and chairman, respectively), and sold the operator to Sprint.

It would use LTE for a private broadband network in 900 MHz, but also have a migration roadmap to 5G when that technology develops to support an even better IoT business case than current LTE – primarily, when ultra-low latency and high reliability features are fully standardized and commercialized at scale, which is likely to be after 2022.

Anterix is the largest holder of 900 MHz spectrum in the USA, thanks to a deal to buy the spectrum and equipment from Sprint (which no longer needed the spectrum after it realigned its 800 MHz holdings, and which lost interest in 900 MHz when no broadband usage allowance was forthcoming). It holds, on average, about 60% of the 399 channels in the 900 MHz band in the top 20 metropolitan market areas, covering about 70% of the population, it states in its annual report.

The first target broadband market for Anterix would be to offer a private LTE IoT network for utilities – should it be allowed to convert its existing LMR (land mobile radio) narrowband spectrum into a 3×3 MHz broadband service, and should it

succeed in acquiring spectrum to fill in its coverage gaps.

This highlights the opportunity for a well-funded private network operator to provide a neutral host platform with trusted, specialized capabilities for a particular sector. The US utilities have been lobbying to receive more of their own spectrum so they can build networks that they are confident will meet their demanding requirements – something they would not achieve by using the public networks. But if a private operator (or an MNO) can deliver them an optimized, secure and reliable network, their need for their own airwaves will be diminished.

In February this year, Anterix created an industry group to promote private IoT networks to utilities. The Utility Broadband Alliance has at least 16 members, including Ameren, Cisco, Ericsson, General Electric, Motorola Solutions, Multi-Tech Systems and Sierra Wireless. Motorola has invested $10m in Anterix and also paid $7.5m to lease some of the smaller firm’s spectrum in 2014.

While still waiting for FCC approval of the 900 MHz rebanding, O’Brien is confident that the interference concerns, raised back in 2014 when the campaign for rebanding started, have been addressed. He said in an interview with FierceWireless: “It appears to us—and we had several independent engineering firms corroborate this for us—that you can operate narrowband and broadband in relatively straightforward way, because of the way that the technology is structured. With the generally high quality receivers in the incumbent land-mobile systems, these systems can operate with minimal separation. I think the major impediments have been resolved.”

He said some very large utilities will build and run their own networks, but others are interested in leasing the spectrum they own to Anterix to add to its private network. Their main reason not to use the public MNO networks is security. “It is the essence of those [public] systems that they are connected, and they are connected at various points with the Internet, and therefore they’re vulnerable to cyberattack,” O’Brien said. “We’re looking at the exact opposite phenomenon, which is a private system that is not connected with the Internet that is architecturally, fundamentally more secure.”

AT&T is targeting utility networks too:

Higher up the spectrum, large telcos like AT&T are also looking at the opportunity of supporting private networks for utilities. AT&T and Nokia have been working on private networks for the smart grid in the USA for more than three years. The aim was to create a network optimized for the utilities’ requirements and rent capacity or slices to individual energy providers, though no customers have yet been announced.

The telco is offering its unpaired 2.3 GHz WCS C and D Blocks of spectrum to utilities and others to support their private LTE, and future 5G, networks. They could build these themselves or work with Nokia.

“Utilities will have continuity they can count on for their critical grid applications. And, they’ll have a network that can evolve with the distribution grid of the future,” AT&T argued when it first discussed the initiative in 2016, though later that year it had to obtain a waiver of the FCC’s build-out mandates for WCS, saying it would not be able to deploy its smart grid system sufficiently broadly to meet the deadlines.

The FCC said at the time that the waiver would enable AT&T “to deploy a beneficial, non-interfering smart grid network to a variety of utility companies nationwide, making efficient use of challenging spectrum blocks. This will be of benefit to the millions of end user customers served by those utilities across the country.”

The FCC proposals for 900 MHz broadband:

The FCC proposes creating a broadband segment within the band, of 3×3 MHz, while the narrowband users will be left with paired blocks of 1.5 MHz and 0.5 MHz. The broadband segment would sit in the 897.5-900.5 MHz and the 936.5-939.5 MHz frequencies. The narrowband blocks would comprise the 1.5 MHz between the broadband segment and other incumbent services – air-to-ground radio-telephone (894-896 MHz), and fixed microwave (932-935 MHz); plus the 0.5 MHz between the broadband segment and the Narrowband Personal Communications Service (NPCS) in 901-902/940-941 MHz.

Allowing for separate narrowband segments, rather than a single 2×2 MHz segment, would allow greater flexibility in frequency selection for narrowband licensees to provide adequate space between colocated channels, the FCC said.

The land mobile radio (LMR) service allocation in the 900 MHz band would be replaced with an aeronautical mobile service allocation, using the spectrum on a co-primary basis with the fixed service, consistent with the allocations in the 890-902 MHz and 928-942 MHz bands in the ITU plan.

The narrowband channels would no longer have a distinction between B/ILT and SMR  (business/industry land transportation and Specialized Mobile Radio) spectrum blocks. Instead, they would be designated as the narrowband segment available for site-based operations. The FCC said this would make it easier for B/ILT and SMR site-based licensees to be relocated from the broadband segment to achieve band realignment.

The FCC proposed licensing the broadband segment on a geographic area basis and for 15-year terms. “Geographic area licensing promotes spectrum efficiency and expedites deployment of flexible use services,” the NPRM said. “It also provides licensees with flexibility to adjust and coordinate spectrum usage quickly, based on changing market conditions.”

The Commission also proposed a “market-driven, voluntary exchange process” that would enable existing users to mutually agree a plan for relocating site-based incumbents and transitioning the band for broadband use. “We recognize, however, that a voluntary process may not be successful in all markets, particularly those with a substantial number of incumbents,” the NPRM said.

The FCC said a new 900 MHz broadband licence applicant must hold licences covering the entire county for all 20 geographically licensed SMR blocks; reach an agreement to clear from the broadband segment, or demonstrate how it will protect all covered incumbent licensees; and agree to return all 900 MHz licenses for the relevant county, including any site-based B/ILT or SMR licences.