FCC Releases NPRM on Licensed Spectrum for Unmanned Aircraft

On January 4, 2023, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) seeking comment on three proposals to promote access by unmanned aircraft (“UA”) to licensed spectrum.

  1. Unmanned Aircraft System (“UAS”) Communications in the 5030-5091 MHz Band

 In 2017, the FCC adopted a Report and Order allocating the 5030-5091 MHz Band for aeronautical mobile-satellite (route) service (“AMS(R)S”) on a primary basis for federal and non-federal use.  The FCC did not, however, adopt any rules to license or govern unmanned aircraft system (“UAS”) services in the band, instead noting that service and technical rules would be promulgated in a separate proceeding.  In 2018, the Aerospace Industries Association (“AIA”) filed a Petition for Rulemaking recommending licensing and service rules for control-and-non-payload communications links in the 5030-5091 MHz band to support UAS operations.   The FCC sought comment on the Petition several times as the UA field continued to develop.

The NPRM seeks comment on a band plan and service rules in the 5030-5091 MHz band to enable UAS operators to use interference-protected control and non-payload communications (“CNPC”) links.  In particular, the NPRM seeks comment on the following:

  1. Band Plan: the NPRM proposes to partition the band and dedicate different segments for two defined UA use cases: (1) non-networked operations, generally occurring within radio-line-of-sight of the UAS operator (“Non-Networked Access” or “NNA”); and (2) network-supported operations, which rely on network infrastructure to go beyond radio-line-of-sight of the operator (“Network-Supported Service” or “NSS”).
    1. The NPRM seeks comment broadly on the on the placement of NNA and NSS spectrum, and an appropriate band plan for the 5030-5091 MHz Band.  The NPRM also invites comment on the following specific band plan: (1) dedicating 10 MHz of spectrum for NNA operations, with 5 MHz blocks at the bottom (5030-5035 MHz) and top (5086-5091 MHz) of the band; (2) dedicating 40 MHz of spectrum for NSS operations, divided into 4 licensed blocks of 10 MHz each, with NNA opportunistic access; and (3) making the remaining 11 MHz available for temporary, opportunistic use by either NNA users or NSS licensees.
  2. Dynamic Frequency Management System: the NPRM proposes that access to the band be managed by one or more dynamic frequency management systems (“DFMS”).  The NPRM also seeks comment on the role for a multi-stakeholder group to help develop the requirements and processes applicable to DFMSs, and to study standards and interference issues associated with UAS operations in the band.
  3. Scope of Permissible Services: the NPRM proposes allowing only CNPC in the band, defined as “any UAS transmission that is sent to or from the UA component of the UAS and that supports the safety or regularity of the UA’s flight.”  The NPRM seeks comment on this proposal, whether additional communications should be permitted, whether to provide clarifying, non-exclusive examples or categories of communications, and whether to limit NNA communications to CNPC but allow broader scope for NSS.
  4. Eligibility Restrictions: the NPRM proposes any entity be eligible to obtain a 5030-5091 MHz NSS license other than those precluded by section 310 of the Communications Act and those barred under 47 U.S.C. § 1404 from participating in auctions.  The NPRM seeks comment on this proposal and whether it should be more restrictive.
  5. NNA Service Rules: The NPRM seeks comment on implementing a licensed-by rule authorization for aircraft and mobile/fixed ground stations conducting NNA operations in the band.  Under this framework, parties using rule-compliant stations and operating in compliance with the rules would only need to obtain the requisite temporary frequency assignment from the DFMS in order to transmit in the band in the requested location, frequency, and timeframe.  The NPRM also proposes to adopt the RTCA DO-362A standard or technical requirements based on that standard to govern NNA equipment and operations.
  6. NSS Service Rules: The NPRM proposes to license NSS spectrum blocks for exclusive use on a geographic area basis and seeks comment on the appropriate geographic size of the license.  Under this proposal, NSS licenses would be issued for initial 15 year terms with 10 year renewal terms, and mutually exclusive license applications would be assigned through a system of competitive bidding.  The NPRM seeks comment on appropriate performance requirements, including whether to adopt a population-based metric requiring coverage of 80% of the population in the license area within 12 years.  The NPRM notes the technical requirements will likely depend on the types of operations to be carried out in the band, and seeks additional comment on what those might be.  The NPRM also asks whether licensees should be permitted, at their discretion, to provide network-supported service for UAS CNPC through either a satellite or terrestrial network, or whether certain NSS licenses should be dedicated exclusively to satellite-based service, and whether high-altitude platform stations should be permitted to be deployed.
  7. Equipment Authorization: the NPRM proposes to impose equipment authorizations similar to those imposed on equipment in the aviation services (part 87).
  8. Protection of Other Services: the NPRM seeks comment on how to protect other services, including Microwave Landing Systems used at airports to aid aircraft in landing in visually impaired circumstances, out of band services such as radioastronomy, AeroMACS, Radionavigation-satellite services, and flight testing, and international coordination.

      2. Airborne Use of Flexible Use Spectrum

 The NPRM seeks comment on other bands that may be utilized for UAS.  The NPRM specifically notes that commenters should address whether a specific band would not be suitable for UAS operation as well.

The NPRM seeks comment on whether existing service rules are sufficient for these other bands, particularly with regard to interference mitigation.  The NPRM notes that use of flexible-use spectrum by UAS may cause interference to co-channel and adjacent-channel operations.  UAs operating at higher altitudes can see and be seen by more base stations than a conventional mobile device and have more favorable propagation conditions than those experienced by terrestrial operations.  These characteristics coupled with their high velocities, can result in handoff and other network issues and may cause downlink and uplink interference.  The NPRM notes there are several potential solutions and seeks comment on them.  The NPRM also seeks comment on the potential different use cases that UA operators may utilize the flexible-use bands for and whether certain rules should be eliminated, which currently may impede UAS deployments.

The NPRM seeks comment on UAS impact on existing licensees’ spectrum rights.  The NPRM notes that UAs have the potential to establish network connections with base stations in adjacent geographic areas due to their altitude.  The NPRM seeks comment on the potential for this to arise, how to prevent interference in these circumstances, whether to identify a vertical limit at which flexible-use licenses may be used to support UAS on an exclusive or primary basis, beyond which UAS use would be non-primary, and whether a licensee should be required to cure harmful interference cause by non-primary operations to adjacent licensees even if it is operating within the service rules for the license.

    3. Licensing UAS Operators for VHF Communications

The aeronautical VHF band (117.975 MHz-137 MHz) is used by aviation for air traffic control and advisory communications among other aviation-safety purposes.  The FAA occasionally requires UAS operators to communicate with air traffic control (“ATC”) facilities when operating near an airport or in controlled airspace.  Operators may use a VHF station integrated into the UA itself whereby the UAS operator’s control station connects with the UA using a non-VHF channel and the UA completes the connection to ATC over the normal VHF channels (“ATC Relay”).  The FCC’s current rules do not currently provide a licensing mechanism for UAS operators to obtain a VHF ground-based station license.

The NPRM proposes to establish such a mechanism by requiring UAS operators to file a license application with the Commission for an individual license covering their VHF station.  While current VHF stations are licensed by rule, the FCC is concerned that the ease with which individuals may obtain VHF hand-held radios that can be operated without training may cause substantial interference to FAA operations.  Individuals with such a license would be permitted to operate over all air traffic control, flight service station, aeronautical advisory station (unicom), and aeronautical multicom station (multicom) channels authorized for use by aircraft.  Mobile stations would be permitted, and the NPRM seeks comment on whether to utilize non-mobile stations as well.  Applicants would be required to obtain an endorsement from the FAA that would be submitted with the application.  The licensing by rule would continue to apply to UAS aircraft stations, such as those described above that use non-VHF channels to communicate with the ground operator.  The NPRM seeks comment on this proposal.

Comments will be due 30 days after the date of publication in the Federal Register.

Reply comments will be due 60 days after the date of publication in the Federal Register.

Commissioner Starks released a statement supporting the item.

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