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FCC Reconsidering Use of 4.9 GHz Public Safety Spectrum



In its recently published Sixth Further Notice of the Proposed Rulemaking (Sixth Further Notice), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expresses its concern that a substantial portion of valuable spectrum that has been allocated exclusively to public safety is underutilized. The 4.9 GHz public safety band, which was established in 2002, has struggled to fulfill policymakers’ expectations as fewer than 3,200 of the 90,000 public safety agencies eligible to use the band have obtained 4.9 GHz licenses. Although public safety stakeholders indicate that their usage has been hampered by the lack of available equipment to use the spectrum, concerns regarding potential interference and financial constraints, the Commission is concerned that the use of the spectrum “has fallen short of its potential.”

In the Sixth Further Notice, the Commission seeks comments on specific actions intended to “stimulate expanded use of and investment in the 4.9 GHz band,” a 50 MHz segment of spectrum, which was originally reserved for Federal government use, that was reassigned to be used exclusively by public safety agencies following the attacks of September 11th. The Commission’s goal is “to ensure that public safety continues to have priority in the band while proposing additional uses that will facilitate increased uses.”

The Commission seeks comments on a number of areas including changes to the band plan, aeronautical mobile and robotic use, frequency coordination, utilization of the FCC Universal License System (ULS) or other database to track licensees, the role of Regional Planning Councils (RPCs) in the licensing process, the adoption of technical standards, primary vs. secondary status for point-to-point and point-to-multipoint links, power limits, polarization, the potential requirement for deployment reports and construction deadlines, eligibility (including extending eligibility to the Critical Infrastructure Industry (CII)), sharing and leasing, and redesignating the band, in whole or in part, to support commercial wireless use.

The Commission is clearly seeking to encourage better use of the 4.9 GHz band and these questions raised in the order should be of particular concern to the public safety community:

  • “Are the bases for the Commission’s decision in 2002 to allocate the entire band for public safety purposes still valid…?”

  • “… Would the public interest be best served if this spectrum could be used for commercial applications, such as 5G?”

In addition, several of the Commissioners indicated their desire to consider the band for uses outside of public safety. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stated, “Considering the massive demand for mobile services, and the consequently massive demand for spectrum, preserving a lightly-used 4.9 GHz band isn’t an option … Our goals are simple: To promote more productive use of the band, to foster the development of new technologies, and to spur investment.” Commissioner Brendan Carr added, “… We ask whether, in light of the past 16 years of results, we should fundamentally rethink our approach to the band, including opening it up for additional use cases.” And finally, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly remarked that, “… In light of the underutilization of this band, use of the band for non-public safety purposes, and the relative progress of FirstNet, I would argue, and I know some of my colleagues agree with this view, that it is time to redesignate this valuable spectrum for commercial use.”

Public safety users of the 4.9 GHz band should closely monitor this proceeding in the coming months, as it is apparent that significant changes are coming to the rules governing the band.

DELTAWRX is a management consulting firm that specializes in assisting public safety and local government entities with technology and wireless communications initiatives. To learn more about our work in this area, or to discuss the implications of potential changes to the 4.9 GHz band on your agency, please contact Donald Denning or Michael Thayer.

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