Allow 5G In-Flight Broadband, Microsoft Urges FCC

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By Lydia Beyoud

Feb. 1 — Microsoft Corp. wants people to have even more broadband connectivity in flight—and could be positioning itself to expand its cloud and Internet of Things offerings to service the airline industry, according to a recent filing with the Federal Communications Commission.

Microsoft asked the FCC to allow unlicensed devices to operate on high-frequency spectrum airwaves in the 60 gigahertz (GHz) band as part of the commission's “spectrum frontiers” proceeding (GN Docket No. 14-177), which is looking at ways to open up more spectrum for commercial use to support the next generation of mobile networks, known as 5G.

Powerful data processing and cloud computing are expected to be part of the underlying structure of the next wave of networks. Microsoft is among the top three providers of cloud and data storage solutions in the U.S. along with Amazon Inc. and Apple Inc., according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

If the FCC approves a notice of proposed rulemaking to make four bands of millimeter airwaves above 24 GHz available to private companies to operate in, it could provide a chance for Microsoft to supply airlines in the same way AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless Inc. compete to provide connectivity to automobile manufacturers .

“Air passengers increasingly expect to have broadband connectivity when they fly,” and the 57 GHz to 64 GHz range is ideal for nearly instantaneous video transmissions, creating wireless networks to support in-flight entertainment systems and to power machine-to-machine communications, Microsoft said in Jan. 27 comments.

Current regulations prohibit wireless equipment on aircraft from operating in the high-frequency band in order to protect radio astronomy services from interference through signal leakage from planes. But the FCC is rethinking those rules as better technology, including new chipsets developed since 1995, can enable safe Wi-Fi operations at those frequencies. Attenuation of signals through the air and even lowered passenger window shades should help keep the extremely shortwave, millimeter radio emissions inside the fuselage, Microsoft said.

“The Commission correctly realizes in the NPRM that we have reached the time where there is a need for use of such devices on transport aircraft,” Microsoft said.

A spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the trade group representing the major U.S. airlines, told Bloomberg BNA it hasn't taken a position on the spectrum issue. “Airlines believe that the ultimate decision about whether to enable cellphone conversations in flight rests with individual carriers, based on customer feedback and employee input, among other factors,” AFA spokeswoman Melanie Hinton said. “We look forward to working with regulatory bodies, Congress and our members to ensure that we can safely provide the type of connectivity our customers want, along with the quality and comfort they expect when they fly.”

2020: 5G Goalpost

At its core, the spectrum frontiers proceeding comes down to making more licensed and unlicensed spectrum available to help spur innovation and technology in the economy. As part of that effort, the Obama administration's 2010 National Broadband Plan aims to free up 500 megahertz (MHz) of new spectrum for flexible use by 2020. The U.S. is about halfway to that goal, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which manages spectrum for federal agencies.

The NTIA and the FCC are working in concert to identify another 250 MHz of spectrum available for commercial use by the end of 2016, NTIA Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Strickling said Feb. 1 in a keynote address to the Silicon Flatirons Conference in Boulder, Colo.

The 2020 goal corresponds with the projected date for widescale deployment of 5G networks, which promise to combine a mix of low-, medium- and high-band frequencies to power everything from wearable devices like Fitbits to driverless cars to telesurgery to machines inside a factory. Faster, more efficient network design and greater data throughput are seen as the hallmarks of the 5G networks and technologies under development.

The trade-off for 5G operations is a shift away from single-use spectrum allocations, such as the exclusively licensed 4G LTE networks that power U.S. mobile networks.

Spectrum sharing is slated to be a cornerstone of spectrum policy, including the spectrum frontiers proceeding. “With the FCC and our other agency partners, along with members of industry, we continue to evaluate the feasibility of increased sharing by unlicensed devices in up to 195 megahertz of the 5 GHz band,” Strickling said in prepared remarks.

“Beyond this, we are working with federal agencies to assess their spectrum use in another five bands accounting for 960 megahertz of spectrum,” he said. NTIA will be able to prioritize some of those bands for more detailed sharing feasibility studies, said Strickling.

Strickling's announcement to push ahead on earmarking more spectrum bands—including those in the hands of federal users—for commercial use was welcomed by CTIA-The Wireless Association, though the details of shared use in the spectrum frontiers proceeding promise to be hard-fought.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine in Washington at

The text of Microsoft's filing is at

The text of Strickling's prepared remarks is at