Microsoft Conversation: Spectrum Frontier

On June 21, Microsoft teamed up with New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) to co-host an event titled “Spectrum Frontier: Enabling the Internet of Things, WiGig, and 5G Wireless.” The event focused on the potential allocations of large quantities of spectrum in high-frequency bands, and featured five panelists from various organizations with dissenting opinions on optimal spectrum distribution strategy.

The conversation, moderated by Director of OTI’s Wireless Future Project Michael Calabrese, proved timely, as just the day before, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler delivered a speech at the National Press Club encouraging the United States to take the lead in developing a standard for the next generation of wireless connectivity.

High-band (64-71GHz) spectrum is the key to developing 5G, the newest generation of wireless connectivity. A 5G wireless network would facilitate unseen connection speed and create opportunities for innovation and the development of seemingly limitless technologies. According to Chairman Wheeler, “I’ve listed some examples of what 5G makes possible. But if anyone tells you they know the details of what 5G will deliver, walk the other way.” On July 14, the FCC will vote on a proposal that would open up a large amount of high-band spectrum for 5G applications. If approved, the U.S. will be the first country to reserve frequency for 5G uses.

Throughout the conversation, the panelists agreed on the tremendous opportunities presented by the spectrum in high-frequency bands. Participants also concurred that while the physics surrounding the high-band spectrum is extremely complex, the potential for expanded spectrum development and applications is exciting. Members of the panel cited potential applications such as surgeons using virtual reality to operate on patients hundreds of miles away through supremely fast wireless connections. What the panelists did not agree on, however, is how the newly released spectrum should be allocated.

Scott Bergmann, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for CTIA – The Wireless Association, an industry trade group representing the wireless communications sector, believes that 5G is the key to both his company and the country’s continued leadership in wireless connectivity. Wireless companies are hoping for the FCC to approve exclusive licensing of the high-band spectrum through the auctioning of large areas of land because claiming the rights over a large area allows mobile carriers to expand and grow their business.

In contrast, Jennifer Manner, Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for EchoStar, the world’s largest satellite Internet service provider, argues that this exclusive licensing through land auctioning will hurt her industry greatly. EchoStar’s land-based technology only requires a few hundred square meters for functionality, and paying top dollar for a large parcel of land is not economically feasible for her company. Although satellite companies like EchoStar are not primarily focused on the 64-71GHz band, firms fear that they can still be forced out of the mid-sized bands they are currently operating in through this exclusive licensing. Manner’s hope is that the FCC adopts an order calling for unlicensed spectrum, in what she describes as a “true sharing regime.”

At the moderator’s suggestion, Microsoft’s Director of Government and Regulatory Affairs Paula Boyd shifted the conversation to focus on unlicensed bands and their usage. She explained that Microsoft’s primary focus is on unlicensed spectrum due to the vast amount of Internet traffic it generates through the use of Wi-Fi. Boyd went on to describe unlicensed spectrum as “the workhorse of broadband connectivity.” She explained that Microsoft currently lives in the cloud, and improving wireless connectivity is essential to the company’s success. After discussing possible complications of 5G implementation, she cited Microsoft’s hope for the availability of 5G connectivity on airplanes, which the company says will not carry harmful effects due to the high level of technology.

When it comes to divvying up the newly released high-band spectrum, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge Harold Feld called for global harmonization. While describing how 5G development in the new spectrum is a complex task, he explained that “we can’t be prisoners of the past in this new [5G] era.” Feld understands that exclusive licensing will greatly increase investment in the spectrum, but says the need for sharing is clear. He believes that in order to innovate and bring new services to the world through the spectrum, cooperation between companies is critical. Feld trusts that repurposing spectrum – licensing a portion for investment purposes while leaving some available for sharing – is the key to success, saying, “the need for certainty bars innovation.”

Kurt Schaubach, Chief Technology Officer at Federated Wireless, agreed with Feld on this point, adding, “not too many restrictions will allow for innovation.”  Nearly all panelists chimed in acknowledging that the spectrum must have flexibility and room for different frameworks. Participants then went on to briefly touch upon 5G’s potential enabling of the Internet of Things and how spectrum will be at the forefront of developing a necessary new mix of technologies.

While participants agreed on the need for compromise to encourage innovation in the spectrum, they recognized that these new opportunities will not come without risk or complication. The need for new policy and scientific funding were both discussed, as well as potential security and privacy issues that may arise. 5G’s efficiency in densely populated urban areas was called into question, but participants concluded that this is a problem that could be remedied with the implementation of signal boosters throughout metropolitan centers.

Despite these potential risks, the applications of high-band spectrum seem infinite. The technology is sure to bring innovative leaps and its capabilities are believed to be profound. Although members of the panel did not share the same beliefs on the best way to allocate spectrum, it is clear that each organization is motivated to use it as a platform to create new, exciting services and usher in the future of connectivity.








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