wireless towerAs stakeholders continue to debate the fate of CBRS band spectrum, the FCC yesterday took the first steps toward opening spectrum in the neighboring C-band for use on a shared basis with existing license holders that use the spectrum for fixed satellite service (FSS).

Wireless ISPs and other rural service providers want to see C-band shared spectrum made available exclusively for fixed wireless broadband – a rule they say would make licenses more affordable. Others see the spectrum being used to support mobile services.

The steps that the FCC took yesterday include issuing a temporary freeze on new applications for FSS in the 3.7-4.2 GHz C-band and opening a 90-day window  for entities that own or operate existing FSS earth stations to update C-band licenses and registrations without submitting a costly spectrum coordination report. The latter move should help the commission gain a better understanding of where and to what extent the C-band is in use. Satellite services in the C-band are used as downlinks for transmitting content to cable television providers – a use case that is in decline as cable providers shift to alternate content distribution methods.

Those who want to see the C-band reserved for fixed use, at least initially, argue that mobile service in the band is not practical because the spectrum would have to be shared with the satellites and earth stations.

The American Cable Association, which represents small cable operators, praised the FCC’s move. “[T]his relief will motivate . . . members to register their stations for the first time, which will ultimately help the FCC understand where and how the C-band is currently used, and how the band can best be made available for other uses” while also providing incumbent users with “at least some protection from future interference.”

C-Band Shared Spectrum
The Broadband Access Coalition, an umbrella group advocating for the C-band to be reserved for fixed use, argues that the spectrum could support as many as three providers of gigabit fixed wireless service in rural areas, including some that currently lack any high-speed broadband options. BAC members include Cincinnati Bell, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association,  The Rural Wireless Association and others.

Other parties, including FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, have a different vision for the C-band. O’Rielly has suggested combining the band with the adjacent 3.55 GHz-3.7 GHz CBRS band to support 5G services, including mobile services.

The FCC initially appeared to have the interests of small rural providers in mind when it established rules for the CBRS auction calling for small license areas and short license terms, which would make the spectrum more affordable. Mobile wireless providers, however, have asked the FCC for larger license areas and longer license terms, arguing that those provisions would make the providers more willing to invest more heavily in mobile network infrastructure.

The stakes are high as the industry waits to see what the FCC does. Will it side with small carriers on one of the bands and with large carriers on the other? Or will one side win on both bands and if so, which side will that be? And is there any possibility of reaching some middle ground?