FCC Relaxes Part 101 Microwave Backhaul Rules to Foster Deployment of Broadband Infrastructure

August 07, 2012

On August 3, 2012, the FCC adopted a second report and order in WT Docket No. 10-153 and RM-11602 that relaxed Part 101 rules to facilitate the deployment of wireless microwave backhaul infrastructure. The new rules allow the use of smaller antennas in some bands, introduce a flexible approach to efficiency standards for less congested rural areas (the Microwave Rural Flexibility Policy), and permit the use of wider channels in some bands. These changes, according to the FCC, will remove regulatory barriers and lower costs for backhaul facilities critical to many mobile wireless networks. As such, the FCC’s action is important to wireless backhaul network owners and service providers, mobile service providers, equipment manufacturers, tower companies, among others.

Specifically, the Commission revised its rules to permit the use of smaller antennas in the 6, 18, and 23 GHz bands. (In 2007, the FCC had previously adopted rules to permit the use of smaller antennas in the 11 GHz band.) The Commission concluded that smaller antennas can be accommodated without materially increasing the interference risk to other licensees. Further, allowing smaller antennas facilitates wireless backhaul in two ways. Smaller antennas allow significant cost savings because they are cheaper to manufacture, install, and maintain. Smaller antennas also allow existing towers to accommodate more antennas and allow installations at sites that would not otherwise be able to accommodate larger antennas. The new rules for smaller antennas enable these spectrum bands to be used more intensively for wireless backhaul, public safety, and other critical uses.

The Commission also adopted a new policy, the Rural Microwave Flexibility Policy, to provide operators relief through the waiver process from efficiency standards that may not be necessary in non-congested rural areas. The Commission found that exempting licensees from the efficiency standards in non-congested areas can reduce the cost of deploying microwave backhaul facilities and substantially increase possible path lengths, thereby spurring deployment of broadband in rural areas. For example, an increase in usable path length would allow some operators to replace multiple paths with single paths. For each intermediate relay station that could be eliminated, the operator would save the cost of a transmitter, antenna, and site rental for that relay site which could reach $500,000 per station. In the Order, the FCC provided a list of factors that will be considered in granting a waiver, including whether each end of the link is located in a rural area (i.e., a county or equivalent having a population density of 100 persons per square mile or less).

The Commission also determined that allowing 60 megahertz and 80 megahertz channels in the 6 GHz and 11 GHz bands, respectively, would serve the public interest by allowing backhaul operators to handle more capacity and offer faster data rates. Under the new rules, operators will be allowed to combine adjacent channels in the 5925-6425 MHz (Lower 6 GHz band) and 10700-1170 GHz band (11 GHz band), respectively, to form 60 and 80 megahertz wide channels, where the maximum authorized channel bandwidths at present are 30 and 40 megahertz, respectively.
The Commission also updated its efficiency standards to reflect the movement towards IP technology and other technologies. Existing payload capacity requirements in section 101.141 have been replaced with updated standards based on bits-per-second-per-Hertz values rather than outdated specifications from the circuit-switched era. The Commission also adopted a definition of “payload capacity” and defined that term to mean the “bit rate available for transmission of data over a radio communication system, excluding overhead generated by the system.” 

The order also includes a new rule that requires a waiver filing for facilities pointing near the geostationary arc of a satellite only if the station’s Equivalent Isotropically Radiated Power (“EIRP”) is greater than the values listed in the ITU Radio Regulations. This change harmonizes FCC regulations with international regulations. 

Finally, the Commission released concurrently a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“FNPRM”) that seeks comment on permitting the use of smaller antennas in the 13 GHz band and input on whether to permit intermediate antenna upgrades. Currently, FCC Rules require a Category B user to upgrade to a Category A antenna (which is subject to more stringent performance standards), if the Category B antenna causes interference problems that would be resolved by the use of a Category A antenna. The FCC seeks input on whether it should permit operators to upgrade to an intermediate standard antenna that does not meet Category A standards to resolve such problems. The Commission also seeks input on whether a comprehensive review of its antenna standards is appropriate and, if so, what changes should be required.

Comments on the Second Further Notice are due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register and replies are due 15 days after that. If you would like assistance with preparing comments or if you have any questions regarding the order, please feel free to contact us. 

Catherine Wang +1.202.373.6037


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This article was originally published by Bingham McCutchen LLP.