FCC Proposes Rule Changes to Facilitate Microwave use for Wireless Backhaul

August 06, 2010

Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) voted unanimously to adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) and Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) (WT Docket No. 10-153) proposing rule changes and asking for input on further changes designed to remove regulatory barriers to the use of at least 750 megahertz of spectrum below 13 GHz for wireless backhaul and other point-to-point and point-to-multipoint communications, while protecting established license holders. With these proceedings, the FCC hopes to promote fourth generation (4G) mobile broadband network deployment nationwide by enabling more flexible and cost-efficient microwave services that reduce the cost of broadband backhaul solutions.

These proceedings will affect service providers and users, such as broadcasters, public safety entities and public utilities, that rely on microwave facilities for wireless backhaul, microwave equipment manufacturers, incumbent licensees in the Broadcast Auxiliary Service (“BAS”), Cable Television Relay Service (“CARS”) and satellite services, frequency coordinators, and tower operators. Comments are due 60 days after Federal Register publication and reply comments are due 90 days after publication.

The NPRM seeks comment on a number of specific proposals to update regulatory classifications outdated by the evolution of convergent technologies and provide for increased spectrum sharing as recommended in the National Broadband Plan, including:

  • Allowing Fixed Microwave Service (“FS”) operations to share BAS and CARS spectrum. Specifically, FS would be permitted to operate in the 750 megahertz located in the 6875-7125 MHz and 12700-13200 MHz bands. The 2025-2110 MHz band would not be part of these changes given recent relocation of BAS incumbents. Comment is sought on the best approach to channelization for the bands under consideration, whether and how to make additional channel bandwidths available, and on the Commission proposal to apply the technical parameters that currently apply to the upper 6 GHz band.
  • Removal of the “final link” rule to allow more access to microwave spectrum under Part 101. This change would eliminate current rules that in some cases force broadcasters to build unnecessary redundant systems in the same locations.
  • Facilitating the use of “adaptive modulation” (in response to earlier separate requests filed by Alcatel-Lucent, Inc. and the Fixed Wireless Communications Coalition) to enable fixed service links - particularly long links in rural areas - to maintain critical communications during periods of fading. This change would allow microwave operators to drop data rates for brief periods below the minimum payload capacity currently specified in the rules. Verizon and X-Dot, Inc. previously opposed this rule application arguing that it would lead to spectrum inefficiency. The NPRM seeks comment on a proposed rule requiring that “minimum payload capacity requirements must be met at all times, except during anomalous signal fading, when lower capacities may be utilized in order to maintain communications.”
  • Permitting Fixed Service licensees to simultaneously coordinate and deploy multiple links – a primary link and “auxiliary” link – (in response to the earlier petition of Wireless Strategies, Inc.) as a means to permit greater reuse of scarce microwave spectrum. These proposed changes would consider the performance of a system based on the aggregation of multiple sites and paths departing from the current rule approach that requires evaluation of propose point-to-point fixed microwave stations on a site-by-site, path-by-path basis. The NPRM seeks input on proposed detailed rules for the operation, frequency coordination, antenna standards, and interference requirements of auxiliary stations, as well as appropriate spectrum bands, likely use models and system configurations for these operations.
  • The NOI seeks comment on:
  • Relaxing efficiency standards in rural areas where links may be longer and the density of deployment and traffic volumes lower than in urban areas. Current rules impose the same traffic capacity requirements to rural and urban locations. The NOI seeks comment on whether relaxed efficiency standards should apply to rural and remote areas absent rule waivers, if so, what efficiency standards should apply, and how best to define “rural” for areas subject to any relaxed requirements. 
  • Allowing the use of smaller antennas for Part 101 microwave services to reduce costs. Current rules do not specify antenna size but include technical parameters for beamwidth, minimum antenna gain, minimum radiation suppression that bear on antenna size. The Commission acknowledges that smaller antennas have increased potential to cause interference but notes that smaller antennas may alleviate barriers caused by tower siting costs and scarcity of desirable antenna positions. For that reason, the Commission will review its antenna standards and seeks input in the NOI on which FS spectrum bands should be reviewed, specific new standards that should be considered, technological or other changes that support new antenna standards, how new standards would facilitate deployment, how new standards would affect other licensees, and whether new standards should only apply to rural areas.
  • Additional modifications to Part 101 rules to promote flexible, effective and cost-efficient wireless backhaul reducing backhaul costs and increasing deployment investment.

Statements by the Commissioners

The Commissioners expressed unanimous supported for the NPRM and NOI. Chairman Genachowski referenced the National Broadband Plan, and describing wireless spectrum as “one of the most important headings in that plan.” He also noted that the Commission “has addressed a spectrum topic at almost every meeting since the introduction of the Broadband Plan,” and the Plan’s “big ideas of spectrum recovery” have enjoyed recent support in the form of bipartisan legislation and the President’s Executive Memorandum on Spectrum. Chairman Genachowski described microwave spectrum as “the blood and guts of the mobile ecosystem,” and as “a growing viable solution for mobile broadband traffic” as providers accelerate deployment of 4G networks, noting that spectrum is the most cost-effective way to do so. Chairman Genachowski stated that “spectrum sharing can make an additional 750 MHz of microwave spectrum available for wireless backhaul and other advanced point-to-point uses,” including fixed broadcast studio links, to increase the capacity, flexibility and cost-effectiveness of the microwave bands while protecting incumbent licensees.

Democratic Commissioner Copps noted that backhaul costs are “a significant part of wireless service operating expenses” and supported the proposed measures as a way to optimize the supply of scarce spectrum resources and  overcome obstacles to bringing broadband to all Americans. He expressed concern regarding rural America’s limited broadband access and reliance on wireless backhaul, which he described as “the lifeblood of a healthy and innovative broadband market.” Democratic Commissioner Clyburn likewise expressed her support of the NPRM and NOI as ways to reduce broadband costs and increase opportunities for rural consumers. Commissioner Clyburn highlighted the need for public input on how to best balance the public interests of “providing up to 750 MHz of spectrum while protecting incumbent operations.”

Republican Commissioner Baker also expressed her support for increased regulatory flexibility to incorporate microwave solutions “where appropriate, especially in rural America.” She pointed out that the proposed measures will help to “ensure that innovative applications are not held back by network bottlenecks” as escalating traffic demands from 4G networks “will result in an estimated ten-fold increase in backhaul capacity needs.” Republican Commissioner McDowell likewise expressed his approval of removing regulatory barriers to the flexible, cost-effective use of spectrum backhaul to facilitate increasing deployment of 4G networks, noting that wireless providers need increased backhaul to accommodate data traffic increases as consumers are taking advantage of a wider range of wireless services. Commissioner McDowell reiterated his support for FCC consideration of point-to-point backhaul services in the TV band White Spaces, “especially in rural areas where there is more abundance of white spaces.” Ruth Milkman, Chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, indicated the Bureau would have a recommendation for the Commission regarding such use of the TV bands “by the end of this year,” following further information-gathering and analysis.

Please contact us if you would like to discuss how these proceedings could affect your equipment or operations. We would be pleased to assist you in preparing comments to the Commission’s proposals. Please contact the following lawyer in our Telecommunications, Media & Technology Group:

Catherine Wang, Partner, 202.373.6037

This article was originally published by Bingham McCutchen LLP.