FCC Approves 900 MHz Realignment Rules
Wednesday, May 13, 2020 | Comments

The FCC moved forward with sweeping changes in the 900 MHz band, making 6 megahertz of low-band spectrum available for the development of critical wireless broadband technologies and services through a process of realigning the band by moving incumbent narrowband users to different 900 MHz spectrum.

The 900 MHz band is currently designated for narrowband LMR communications and primarily used by land transportation, utility, manufacturing and petrochemical companies.

The rules are a boon for Anterix, founded by industry veteran Morgan O’Brien, which first petitioned the FCC to realign the band in 2014. The Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA) was a joint petitioner and last year executed an agreement with Anterix that will see EWA assist Anterix in the process of relocating 900 MHz incumbent licensees.

The FCC’s unanimous decision makes 6 megahertz available for broadband licenses on a county-by-county basis while reserving the remaining 4 megahertz of spectrum for continued narrowband operations. Specifically, the commission approved a report and order, an order of proposed modification, and two orders that realign the band and establish a transition mechanism based primarily on negotiations between prospective broadband licensees and existing narrowband incumbent licensees. The item also establishes rules to prevent broadband applicants from receiving windfalls and includes application requirements and operating and technical rules applicable to the new 900 MHz broadband licenses.

The full FCC documents were not yet available by press time, but the draft order would permit a 900 MHz broadband licensee (after license grant) to mandatorily relocate a small number of incumbents — except those with complex systems of 45 sites or more — from the new broadband segment to the narrowband segment by providing comparable facilities.

Industry feedback on the FCC’s 2019 proposal to realign the 900 MHz band was varied, with large incumbent utilities generally opposing the proposal and others supporting the realignment only with tight interference protections and voluntary incumbent relocation. The draft rules did not include a guard band, and interference was a large concern for the majority of commenters with current 900 MHz systems.

Motorola Solutions plans to launch a 900 MHz broadband product line in June, said Scott Schoepel, vice president of global enterprise. The product range will include eNodeBs and edge devices for fixed data in the critical infrastructure industries (CII) sector. Motorola announced a Nitro product line for the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum earlier this year.

“We’ve got a number of customers that are in 900 MHz narrowband today … so we certainly understand the concerns with interference and the ability to work together, but we also understand the opportunity for broadband,” Schoepel said. “So, we think there’s an opportunity for both and to have that ability to have mission-critical voice and data capabilities all integrated together.”

The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) developed standards for 900 MHz called band class 8. The Motorola product line will have better RF specifications than the 3GPP standards, so they can be good RF neighbors with 900 MHz narrowband systems. Good network design will be key as well, Schoepel said.

“These two things in our analysis can absolutely work together and co-exist,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy. Traditional broadband deployments always have guard bands, but that isn’t the case at 900 MHz. The products and systems need to be designed more like narrowband systems.”

Some incumbent licensees said in FCC comments they want the opportunity to hold a broadband license, and Anterix shouldn’t be the only broadband player in the band.

The draft rules said a broadband license holder must hold 50% of the narrowband channels within a county. Anterix holds the majority of the spectrum in the 900 MHz band, but it’s possible an incumbent might hold enough licenses at a county level to vie for a broadband license. Schoepel also suggested that several companies in the same area, such as refineries in the Gulf, might partner and build a network together.

Ericsson also plans to supply 900 MHz broadband equipment and is pleased with the new rules. "The newly reconfigured 900 MHz band will help support existing LTE networks and new 5G networks, enabling a broad range of use cases among many industries," said Kevin Zvokel, head of networks at Ericsson North America. "We look forward to working with our customers as they roll out innovative applications and services that take advantage of this new broadband allocation.”

In addition, the FCC’s item would modify the Association of American Railroads (AAR) existing nationwide ribbon license in the 900 MHz band to facilitate the transition of the band without disruptions to railroads’ operations and to enable significant railroad safety upgrades.

The commission also announced a partial lifting of the 900 MHz application freeze to permit existing licensees to file applications to relocate their narrowband operations as part of a transition plan.

The 800 MHz rebanding process, which began in 2004 and was originally scheduled to last three years, is not yet final.

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