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June 27 -- The Federal Communications Commission (Commission) seeks comment on whether changes to Commission's rules or policies are needed to facilitate the development of commercial and private wireless networks offshore. Recognizing that U.S. commercial and scientific endeavors may benefit from increased access to spectrum offshore, the Notice aims to gather information on offshore operation use cases and their potential. It seeks comment on the type of offshore uses that require spectrum, the appropriate spectrum bands to support offshore uses, and potential assignment mechanisms. Send comments on or before July 27, 2022; and reply comments on or before August 26, 2022.

I. Introduction

1. With this Notice of Inquiry, we take the first steps toward facilitating offshore operations through innovative spectrum management policy. Specifically, we seek input on whether changes in our rules and policies are needed to facilitate the development of offshore commercial and private networks. This Notice of Inquiry seeks to gather information on offshore operation use cases and their potential, including, but not limited to, the type of offshore uses that require spectrum, the appropriate spectrum bands for offshore uses, and potential assignment mechanisms. We take this action to support U.S. industrial and scientific endeavors that will benefit from offshore spectrum availability, and in return benefit the public, while also protecting existing operations such as maritime and aviation safety operations.

2. We recognize that a variety of approaches may be appropriate as we consider potential paths forward, whether through industry-led voluntary sharing measures, Commission policy and guidance, or regulation where other approaches would be insufficient. With this Notice, we seek to compile a comprehensive record on the various issues that the Commission should consider, inviting broad comment from all stakeholders. We look forward to reviewing the record that develops from this Inquiry to inform us regarding next steps that the Commission may take.  

II. Background

3. A bedrock Commission obligation is to manage and oversee the nation's radio spectrum, “maintain[ing] the control of the United States over all [] channels of radio transmission” and “provid[ing] for the use of such channels, but not the ownership thereof, by persons for limited periods of time.” 47 U.S.C. 301. To fulfill this obligation, the Commission assigns spectrum rights where there is public need for spectrum. With respect to licenses on land, we continue to meet the ever increasing demands for spectrum, and generally have done so on a band-by-band or service-by-service basis as technology advances and spectrum needs evolve. We have utilized a wide array of models for assigning spectrum rights because of a wide diversity of land-based needs. With respect to access offshore for land-based spectrum, however, existing mechanisms may not be meeting current demand.

4. The Commission's initial site-based, demand-driven, licensing paradigms that remain in effect in many bands continue to provide for narrowband spectrum access in support of industry, public safety, and backhaul. The Commission uses ongoing, demand-driven licensing in the Gulf of Mexico and in other U.S. territorial waters in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, including areas adjacent to the Continental United States (CONUS), Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Where applicable, such licensing (and deployments under those licenses) require coordination with Canada and Mexico. The majority of such site-based offshore authorizations are for Private Land Mobile Radio (PLMR) services, part 90 radiolocation services, aviation-ground services, and maritime coast stations. As of the publication of this document, there are more than 1,400 active site-based licenses issued offshore across many different radio services. In addition, our part 15 rules for unlicensed operation and our part 5 rules for experimental radio use have provided parties with additional mechanisms for accessing radio spectrum offshore.

5. When the Commission began to use geographic area licensing, it provided for spectrum access in the Gulf of Mexico only in certain spectrum bands, and our rules do not provide for geographic-based access in the remaining bands in the Gulf of Mexico and in all other offshore areas surrounding and within the United States and its territories. In the context of notice and comment rulemaking proceedings, the Commission adopted an area license for the Gulf of Mexico when there was demand demonstrated in the record and there were no technical, legal, or policy reasons prohibit it. With the exception of the Gulf of Mexico, there is not a geographic area license specifically designated for offshore use—e.g., there is no market area license for water off the Atlantic or Pacific Coasts, or within the Great Lakes. We recognize that there may be offshore operations in other areas that may need access to additional spectrum and could benefit from geographic-area licensing or other assignment mechanisms aside from site-based access.

6. Offshore communications are also available or are authorized via satellite-based systems. For instance, mobile earth stations located at sea provide communications services both offshore and in international waters. These include Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) provided by such companies as Inmarsat and Iridium, as well as services provided via Earth Stations in Motion (ESIMs) by such companies as SES, Intelsat, Telesat, and ViaSat. ESIMs are increasingly used to deliver broadband to maritime vessels—including enterprise services and broadband to cruise ships. In addition, satellite-based communications currently play a significant role in providing communications to oil rigs and platforms offshore. In this inquiry, we are exploring the potential benefits of providing additional avenues for providing offshore access via terrestrial communications services. We also note that part 80 of the Commission's rules provides spectrum to vessels for maritime radio, such as Automatic Identification System (AIS) channels and other uses. This Notice does not seek comment on Maritime Radio, but rather on other offshore spectrum use cases, including additional needs of vessels.

III. Discussion

7. This Notice of Inquiry first seeks comment on the actual demand for offshore spectrum and whether the Commission needs to facilitate spectrum usage for offshore operations. This Inquiry recognizes different spectrum rights models that could facilitate offshore operations and seeks comment on which model would best serve spectrum needs offshore. We do not intend to structure our analysis by specific offshore regions or zones. Instead, we seek more broadly to understand the extent of the demand to use offshore spectrum and more generally where that demand is concentrated. Next, we seek comment on assignment mechanisms that would best serve the Commission's goal of effective and efficient use of spectrum. We also seek comment on the potential for unlicensed use and spectrum leasing models to meet offshore spectrum needs, and on individual spectrum bands that may facilitate offshore operations. Finally, we seek comment on whether the approaches taken by other countries in making offshore spectrum available can inform our policy. . . .

Proposed rule: https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2022-13440

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