The FCC recently released the final text of its Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Expanding Flexible Use of the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz Band. A draft was issued last month and the FCC considered the matter at its Open Meeting on July 12th.

At the Open Meeting, all Commissioners supported expeditious reallocation of the band.  It appears clear that the proceeding will result in significant transition of the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for terrestrial wireless use.  In his published statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai metaphorically suggested:

In the 1975 summertime blockbuster Jaws, Police Chief Martin Brody, after a single glance at the massive shark lurking just beneath the water’s surface, memorably observed, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  This summer, we face a similar situation as next-generation 5G wireless innovations loom.  It’s apparent that we’re gonna need a bigger boat as well—or in our case, more spectrum.

The FCC Chief’s oral comments at the Open Meeting added even more color:

We tee up a number of market mechanisms for reallocating the spectrum.  We hope to identify a mechanism that will unleash activity in this band like the $3,000 bounty placed on the shark in Jaws, but with less bloodletting.”

Although many agree with the need for more 5G spectrum and certainly the desire to minimize bloodletting, it may be necessary to adjust the aquatic analogy since the original story did not end well for the boat or the shark.  Perhaps we should consider the waters as spectrum; thus, the challenge is to determine who should be permitted to swim and where.

In this connection, it is important to consider the shark (mobile broadband interests), the swimmers (incumbent spectrum users), the best use of the boat (spectrum management principles), the bounty (auction proceeds and spectrum access), and the public interest generally (addressing the spectrum crunch and the digital divide).  The answers may well depend on whether urban or rural waters are considered.

The shark has been hunting in these waters for years.  Domestic political forces, commercial interests, and international regulatory momentum may be forming an inexorable tide towards opening portions of the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for mobile wireless use.  But we can’t help but wonder whether the frenzy of interest, the pressure to act quickly, and the lure of 5G will sacrifice the proven public benefits of incumbent services – from nationwide video distribution to broadband connectivity in the most remote areas of Alaska – for new services in only a small fraction of the United States.  The need and underlying business case for 5G differ dramatically in dense-urban and rural-remote areas, and it is not clear that a one-size-fits-all approach can adequately address these disparate circumstances.

In this context, we are reminded of other characters from Jaws – Captain Quint and oceanographer Matt Hooper.  The stern and unrelenting Quint pursued his objective with a strong but limited perspective, which constrained potential options and ultimately led to his demise.  Dr. Hooper was intrigued by, if not in awe of, the primordial power of the film’s squalene star and pursued an approach that was more methodical and well-considered.  He avoided bloodshed, after an initial attempt to address the problem, by pursuing a conservative course of action at the appropriate time.  Perhaps the industry should avoid a feeding frenzy and bring bits of Dr. Hooper, as well as Chief Brody and the seasoned Captain Quint, to these issues.

The 5G spectrum challenge is fundamentally a dense-urban/peak-traffic issue for which the FCC is considering a uniform national approach for a nation with vastly different service requirements in urban and rural areas.  Reliance on market mechanisms without considering such differences, as well as the contributions of incumbents, may elevate cash flow over other important interests.  The benefits of additional mobile broadband spectrum can be realized in areas of most intensive demand without throwing the boat and the entire 3.7-4.2 GHz band…well…to the sharks.