Claude's Blog: FCC 5.9 GHz STA Helps WISPs Serve Through COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have challenged most networks with crushes of Internet traffic.  Our own survey of WISPs reveals that they have experienced about a 35% increase in traffic at peak hours since the government’s response to the pandemic began.  Though these networks remain robust and fully functional, for WISPs, the new traffic dynamics threatened to hamstring networks at the worst possible time for homes and businesses.
In early March before a Senate hearing, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks suggested that using the 5.9 GHz band for an emergency virus response plan could rapidly boost unlicensed connectivity.  This swath of 75 MHz, which was reserved for the automotive industry two decades ago, is essentially fallow, seeing little to no use since its inception.  Because the band sits adjacent to unlicensed providers in the 5 GHz band, it represented a perfect candidate to quickly increase capacity, alleviating some of “COVID-crunch” on WISP and Wi-Fi networks. 
Thankfully, Chairman Pai and FCC staff jumped into action, and offered to unleash the lower 45 MHz of the band to WISPs and other communications providers via Special Temporary Authority (STA).  By late March, and with the help of WISPA’s counsel Steve Coran (who provided pro bono services on this), the FCC granted STAs for an initial 33 applicants.  Since then, more than 100 providers have taken the FCC up on its STA offer.
By all measures, the plan has been a success.  “The FCC’s quick action to add additional spectrum with an STA and a simple software change allowed Amplex to increase bandwidth across our network by 50%,” noted WISPA member Mark Radabaugh.  According to Radabaugh, this greatly improved capacity not only for the equipment using the new spectrum, but also reduced congestion on the existing spectrum.  His results were typical of others who received an STA grant.
Earlier in May, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued a press release on the progress of the STA’s, with him proudly noting, “American consumers are relying more than ever on broadband, so I’m pleased that 5.9 GHz spectrum is helping fixed wireless broadband providers deliver faster and more efficient service for consumers… [and] I’m grateful to these companies for making a positive difference in their communities, delivering Internet access that’s sorely needed in some of the hardest-to-connect places in our country.”
Thanks to the quick work of the Chairman who granted the STAs, Commissioner Starks who started the ball rolling, and our members, the once-fallow 5.9 GHz band has found new greenfield use, keeping Americans connected and safe through the pandemic.
This is an important proof of concept use case.  The automotive industry has sat on its hands for two decades, yielding little innovation and leaving the band grossly underutilized.  In a matter of weeks, WISPs quickly put the spectrum into service where there was none.  With the FCC likely to vote on opening up the lower 45 MHz of 5.9 GHz band permanently for unlicensed providers, it is good to show that our members can effectively employ the spectrum, especially in the most challenging of times.  
The FCC’s bi-partisan leadership on re-purposing fallow 5.9 GHz spectrum for more robust and meaningful use could be another jewel in the crown of a Commission which has made wide swaths of spectrum available for commercial use, ensuring the United States’ leadership position in wireless worldwide.