Two votes from the FCC today resolved longstanding questions regarding the future of so-called “mid-band” radio spectrum in the United States. In a 3-1 vote, FCC commissioners opened the 3.5GHz band up for use in 5G networks, with a separate unanimous vote expanding the 6GHz band to next-generation Wi-Fi devices. Collectively, the FCC’s orders set the stage for dramatically better mobile devices and wireless routers than what’s available today.
As carriers and chipmakers prepare for global launches of high-speed 5G cellular networks, understanding the 3.5GHz order is particularly important. Previously, the 3.550-3.700 GHz band was reserved for U.S. naval radar use, but it’s a suboptimal allocation of radio spectra — the Navy doesn’t use it at all locations and times. So the FCC is creating 15 channels within that band, auctioning seven to “priority access licenses” and offering eight for general access, with the Navy getting priority across the band wherever and whenever it needs it.
While the specifics of the 3.5GHz order aren’t of interest to most people, the upshot is that the private sector will get access to useful and largely unused midrange spectrum for use in 5G networks. Researchers and regulators in Europe and Asia have identified the 3.5GHz band as ideal for 5G signaling, as it offers an excellent combination of wireless signal distance, building penetration, and bandwidth; the only challenge has been reallocating previously-reserved spectrum for 5G. Now, that can happen, and 5G devices can be built to support the same 3.5GHz ranges across North America, Europe, and Asia.
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