How to Access Spectrum

There are several mechanisms that the FCC uses to make spectrum available for wireless services, including licensed and unlicensed spectrum. Some licensed frequencies are designated for commercial use while others are allocated for use by public safety agencies. Many of the licensed frequencies can also be leased or transferred to other entities in the secondary market.

Unlicensed Spectrum

In spectrum that is designated as "unlicensed" or "licensed-exempt," users can operate without an FCC license but must use certified radio equipment and must comply with the technical requirements, including power limits, of the FCC's Part 15 Rules. Users of the license-exempt bands do not have exclusive use of the spectrum and are subject to interference.

Licensed Spectrum for Commercial Services

Licensed spectrum allows for exclusive, and in some cases non-exclusive, use of particular frequencies or channels in particular locations. Some licensed frequency bands were made available on a site-by-site basis, meaning that licensees have exclusive use of the specified spectrum bands in a particular point location with a radius around that location. Since 1994, the rights to use commercial spectrum have generally been auctioned and licensed by particular geographic areas, such as Economic Areas (EAs) or Cellular Market Areas (CMAs). Some bands include a hybrid of these two models, in which the spectrum was initially licensed on a site-by-site basis, and then the "white space" around those licenses was auctioned and licensed on a geographic area basis.

FCC Spectrum Auctions

The FCC is always working to make new spectrum available for wireless services, including wireless broadband. The FCC typically assigns new spectrum licenses for commercial services using spectrum auctions.

Secondary Markets for Licensed Spectrum

The FCC has taken significant steps to remove regulatory barriers and facilitate the development of secondary markets for spectrum usage rights. In 2003 and 2004, the FCC established new policies and procedures to facilitate broader access to valuable spectrum resources through the use of spectrum leasing arrangements, and streamlined procedures for approving license assignments and transfers of control. The FCC also provided for immediate processing of certain qualifying spectrum leasing and license assignment and transfer transactions.

The FCC has also taken steps to make it easier to find current licensees, including releasing the Spectrum Dashboard, which allows the public to search, map, and download licensing data with just a few clicks of a mouse.

Licensed Spectrum for Public Safety

The FCC makes spectrum available for exclusive use by public safety agencies and first responders, such as state and local police and fire departments. The rules for certain frequencies are designed to allow public safety licensees to deploy broadband services