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Apple pushes FCC for more unlicensed airwaves for 5G

Save more of that ultra-high frequency spectrum for innovators to work with, Apple urges the agency.

Logo light box of the Apple store located on the Huaihai
Zhang Peng

Apple is urging the Federal Communications Commission not to sell big chunks of the super-high frequency spectrum it plans to open up for 5G wireless and instead allow innovators free access to the airwaves.

In a filing last week, the company recommended the agency keep large slivers of frequencies between 95 and 3000 Gigahertz unlicensed with "the goal of encouraging a range of innovative business and engineering approaches that market forces determine best utilize these frequencies," and avoid "restrictive regulations, band plans, or predictions about future uses of the bands that could dictate outcomes and limit innovation."

The letter comes as the FCC tries to figure out what to do with very high-frequency airwaves in the age of 5G. Earlier this year, the agency opened a proceeding to seek comment from the public about how to handle airwaves above 95 GHz, which had once been thought of as unusable for wireless service.

But now that 5G or the fifth generation of cellular technology is on the horizon -- promising to greatly enhance the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks -- these very high frequency airwaves are suddenly seen as valuable for their ability to allow for faster transmission speeds and greater network capacity. That said, high-frequency spectrum also has its challenges, such as shorter transmission distances and required line of sight between radio transmitters. Still, experts see huge opportunities for 5G in this untapped frontier of wireless spectrum.

Exactly what type of new applications this spectrum will allow is unknown, which is why Apple is urging the FCC to be cautious about aggressively divvying it up into licenses sold to private companies for exclusive use. This is how the FCC has traditionally allocated new bands of spectrum for commercial use. Instead, Apple suggests the FCC reserve more spectrum for unlicensed use, like the agency has done for Wi-Fi.

"Premature or overly restrictive spectrum regulation … results in inefficiencies, opportunity costs, and that 'familiar scenario' of managing or relocating incumbents when the optimal use for allocated spectrum changes over time," the company said in its filing.

Specifically, it's advising the FCC do two things. First, it recommends the FCC "increase the fraction of the spectrum that it opens to unlicensed spectrum" rather than preferring the licensed model, as it's done traditionally. And second, it suggests making the unlicensed slivers wider.  

"Very wide bandwidth operations" would call for "20 gigahertz or more to function optimally," Apple notes. It adds that this could benefits for "environmental protection, human safety, and manufacturing."

Apple's point of view is somewhat at odds with the traditional wireless industry. While wireless carriers use unlicensed spectrum, like Wi-Fi, they've built their business models and strategies around spectrum licenses offering exclusive use.  In general, they've lobbied for more spectrum licenses and smaller and fewer bands of unlicensed spectrum.

At least one FCC commissioner, Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, is on the same page as Apple. In a statement when the FCC voted in February to look into using this super high-frequency spectrum, she said she hoped "those who file in this proceeding consider the power of having a much larger slice for unlicensed -- and all the low-cost innovation it could bring."

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