The FCC will vote later this month to explore rule changes for the 3550-3700 MHz spectrum band, known as the CBRS band, including the possibility of larger license areas for longer time periods. According to supporters, CBRS spectrum rule changes would facilitate the deployment of 5G services.
But such rule changes could make it more difficult for rural carriers to obtain licenses to support fixed broadband wireless service in remote areas where high costs have prevented the deployment of traditional wired broadband infrastructure.
Proposed CBRS Spectrum Rule Changes
The proposed CBRS spectrum rule changes came in the form of a draft notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) posted on the FCC website. The commission is scheduled to vote on the NPRM later this month, which would trigger a formal comment period.
The rule changes would apply to priority access spectrum licenses (PALS), which the commission expects to award through an auction. Priority access licensees are one of three types of users envisioned for the CBRS band, along with incumbent government users who would use the spectrum on a priority basis, primarily in specific geographic areas, and unlicensed users.
Current CBRS rules call for PALS licenses to be issued on a census tract basis for a period of three years. Wireless internet service providers (WISPs) operating primarily in remote rural areas welcomed that plan, as they hoped that the small license size would make it economically feasible for them to obtain licenses.
The draft NPRM about CBRS rule changes stops short of recommending a different size license area but instead seeks comment on that possibility and on what the appropriate license size should be. It asks specifically for input on changing the license area to a partial economic area (PEA) – a license size originally proposed for the previous 600 MHz auction. The NPRM also does not recommend a specific license term, but seeks comment on that possibility, including the possibility of expanding the term to 10 years.
Both the PEA license area and 10-year license term were part of a proposal made to the FCC by CTIA–The Wireless Association earlier this year.
‘[I]t has become increasingly apparent that the 3.5 GHz band will be a core component of next-generation network deployments throughout the world, with several countries moving forward with policies that would make this band available for 5G,” said the FCC in a fact sheet included with the draft NPRM. “To maintain U.S. leadership in wireless, we must ensure that the service rules for this band keep up with technological advancements, create incentives for investment, encourage efficient spectrum use, and promote robust network deployments.”
The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) said it was “very disappointed that the commission appears poised to initiate a proceeding that will undo the CBRS rules adopted just two years ago. This band is ideal for providing fixed broadband to rural consumers that lack choice, and the proposals in the FCC’s draft order will undercut future deployment and innovation and strand investment.”
WISPA vowed to speak out in the upcoming proceeding and said allies in the rural broadband community will do the same.
The Neighboring 3700-4200 MHz Band
The release of the draft NRPM about CBRS rule changes came just as commenters were weighing in on plans for the neighboring 3700-4200 MHz band in response to a “mid-band spectrum” notice of inquiry (NOI). Here, too, large and small service providers could find themselves at odds with one another. The spectrum is currently used by cable TV operators in specific geographic areas and according to telecom industry stakeholders, would lend itself well to shared use. The question is whether that will be fixed or mobile use.
A group of smaller service providers and manufacturers serving them known as the Broadband Access Coalition earlier this year asked the FCC to make the spectrum available exclusively for fixed point-to-multipoint use – at least until the cable TV industry phases out its use of the spectrum, at which point the spectrum might be opened up for mobile use. The coalition also asked for small “pie wedge”-shaped license areas. This plan would support up to three providers of gigabit fixed wireless service in the same geographic area, the coalition said.
Google/ Alphabet Access filed comments in the mid-band spectrum NOI in support of making the 3700-4200 MHz band available for point-to-multipoint fixed wireless broadband. And within the last few days, two rural service provider associations, including NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association and the Rural Wireless Association, have joined the Broadband Access Coalition.
At least one FCC commissioner – Michael O’Rielly – has a different vision for the 3700-4200 MHz band, however. He envisions combining the band with the CBRS band to support 5G and auctioning the entire 3700-4200 MHz band.
O’Rielly has suggested that the 6 GHz band could be used for fixed wireless deployments. But Mimosa Networks, a key Broadband Access Coalition member, says that band is already crowded with microwave users. And just yesterday, the Utilities Technology Council said wireless broadband services should not be allowed into the 6 GHz band because it might inhibit the use of smart electricity technologies. UTC noted that electric and water utility companies, as well as pipeline operators, use microwave technology in the 6 GHz band to support voice and data communications in their service territories.