The FCC will vote later this month on rule changes for the upcoming auction of spectrum in the CBRS band. According to a draft order released today, the proposed CBRS auction rules call for licenses to be awarded by county for a period of 10 years with the option to renew.
Rules that the FCC initially adopted for the CBRS band in 2016 were a “mistake,” according to a fact sheet issued by FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. Those rules called for spectrum to be auctioned on a census tract basis, but according to O’Rielly, that would have required a one-time sealed bid auction which would have undervalued the licenses in comparison with the multiple-round approach that has been used in other FCC auctions.
CBRS Auction Rules
Plans for the CBRS band have been hotly debated, pitting rural fixed wireless internet service providers (WISPs) and others who had expected to benefit from initial auction rules against large mobile carriers that wanted those rules changed to make it more feasible for them to use the spectrum for 5G deployments. Larger carriers wanted licenses to be awarded on a partial economic area (PEA) basis. PEAs are considerably larger than counties.
Initial FCC CBRS band rules called for licenses to be issued for a period of three years, but larger carriers wanted 10-year license periods with an option to renew. If the draft order is adopted, they will have been successful in achieving that goal.
The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), the industry trade group representing rural fixed wireless internet providers, wasted no time in issuing a statement expressing disappointment about the draft order. According to WISPA President and CEO Claude Aiken, the combination of larger license size and longer license terms would make licenses unaffordable for “a significant number of our members.” As a result, Aiken said WISPs’ ability to bring broadband at the FCC target speed of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream to rural residents who do not currently have such service available to them will be diminished.
The proposed CBRS rule changes do not change the current plan to auction seven licenses for different portions of the CBRS band and to leave a portion of the band available for unlicensed use, but some WISPs say the unlicensed portion of the spectrum is likely to become crowded and less viable as a means of providing fixed wireless service.
Back in May, a coalition including WISPA and other entities offered a compromise proposal that would have reduced the number of licenses issued on a census tract basis to two, with the remaining five issued on a county basis. That proposal also would have increased the license term to seven years.
About the same time, associations representing mobile carriers offered their own compromise proposal, which called for licenses to be issued by metropolitan statistical areas in the top 306 cellular market areas (CMAs) and for county-based licenses in the remaining CMAs, but did not compromise on the request for a 10-year license period.
The plan to auction all licenses by county represents a middle ground between the two compromise proposals, but sides with the mobile carriers on the duration of licenses.
Mobile carrier association CTIA expressed satisfaction with the latest CBRS auction rules proposal.
“Other countries have already moved to license 3.5GHz spectrum with investment-friendly policies and it’s imperative that the United States keep pace,” said CTIA CEO Meredith Atwell Baker in a statement.