FCC Orders Amateur Access to 3.5 GHz Band to “Sunset”

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Despite vigorous and continuing opposition from ARRL and others, the FCC has ordered the “sunsetting” of the 3.3 – 3.5-GHz amateur radio secondary spectrum allocation. The decision allows current amateur activity on the band to continue, “grandfathering” the amateur operations subject to a later decision. The FCC proposed two deadlines for amateur operations to cease on the band. The first would apply to the 3.4 – 3.5 GHz segment, the second to 3.3 – 3.4 GHz. The FCC will establish the dates once it reviews additional comments.

“We adapt our proposal from the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to remove the amateur allocation from the 3.3 – 3.5 GHz band,” the FCC said in its R&O. “[W]e adopt changes to our rules today that provide for the sunset of the secondary amateur allocation in the band, but allow continued use of the band for amateur operations, pending resolution of the issues raised in the Further Notice.”

The Report and Order (R&O) and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in WT Docket No. 19-348 adopted on September 30 followed a 2019 FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in which the FCC proposed re-allocating 3.45 – 3.55 GHz for “flexible-use service” and auctioning the desirable “mid-band” spectrum (generally defined as between 1 GHz and 6 GHz) to 5G providers. These and other recent spectrum-repurposing actions stem from the MOBILE NOW Act, enacted in 2018, in which Congress directed the Commission to make additional spectrum available to auction for mobile and fixed wireless broadband. The FCC action is consistent with worldwide allocations adopted by the ITU for these frequencies.

In the run-up to the Commission’s decision, ARRL met with the FCC’s professional staff to explain its concerns and to answer questions. Subsequently, ARRL met with the wireless advisors to the FCC Chairman and two Commissioners. In those meetings, ARRL reiterated that continued secondary status for amateurs will not impair or devalue use of this spectrum by the primary licensees intending to provide 5G or other service. ARRL noted amateur radio’s long history of successful coexistence with primary users of the 9 cm band, sharing this spectrum with the federal government users and secondary, non-federal occupants.

ARRL pointed out that vital links in amateur television and amateur radio high-speed mesh networks using the band have been especially valuable during such emergency situations as the wildfires currently raging on the west coast. Deleting the amateur secondary allocation will result in lost opportunities for experimentation and public service with no public interest benefit to make up for that.

ARRL argued that deleting the secondary allocation would waste the scarce spectrum resource, particularly in areas where commercial services often do not construct full facilities due to small populations. The FCC action means that amateur radio will lose access to the 3.5-GHz secondary allocation even where commercial operations do not exist. ARRL told the Commission that it should not intentionally allow this spectrum to be vacant and unused, wasting the public resource, when amateurs can use some portion of it in many geographic areas with no detriment to any other licensee, just as it has in the past. ARRL argues that amateur operations should be permitted until and unless an actual potential for interference exists.

Deletion of the 3.3 – 3.5 GHz secondary amateur allocation will become effective on the effective date of the FCC’s order, but amateur radio operation as of that date may continue while the FCC finalizes rules to license spectrum in the 3.45 – 3.55 GHz band and establishes deadlines for amateur operations to cease. The FCC proposed allowing amateur operation in the 3.3 – 3.4 GHz portion of the band to continue “pending further decisions about the future of this portion of the spectrum,” the timing for which is unknown. The Commission proposed to mandate that operations cease in the 3.4 – 3.5 GHz portion when commercial licensing commences for the new 3.45 – 3.55 GHz “5G” band, which is predicted to begin in the first half of 2022.

“[W]e seek comment on whether it is in the public interest to sunset amateur use in the 3.3 – 3.55 GHz band in two separate phases, e.g., first above 3.4 GHz, which is the focus of [the R&O] and later in that portion of the band below 3.4 GHz,” the FCC said.

ARRL expressed gratitude to the many members and organizations that joined ARRL in challenging the FCC throughout this nearly year-long proceeding. They included multiple radio clubs, weak signal enthusiasts, moonbounce participants, and the Amateur Radio Emergency Data Network (AREDN), the Amateur Television Network (ATN), AMSAT, and Open Research Institute (ORI).

ARRL will continue its efforts to preserve secondary amateur radio access to 3.3 – 3.5 GHz. Members are invited to share comments by visiting www.arrl.org/3-GHz-Band.

“We recognize that any loss of our privileges will most directly impact radio amateurs who use the frequencies to operate and innovate,” said ARRL President Rick Roderick, K5UR. “Such instances only embolden ARRL’s role to protect and advocate for the Amateur Radio Service and Amateur Satellite Service. There will be continued threats to our spectrum. So I urge all amateurs, now more than ever, to strengthen our hold by being ceaseless in our public service, experimenting, and discovery throughout the radio spectrum.”

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