The FCC has extended the deadline for most fixed wireless providers to transition from current to new rules for the CBRS spectrum band. All parties that have deployed fixed wireless in the portion of the band between 3650 and 3700 MHz now have until October 17, 2020 to replace or upgrade current equipment to support new rules impacting the entire CBRS band between 3550-3700 MHz. Previously some providers had until October 17, 2020 to meet that requirement, but many providers faced earlier deadlines that would have begun as soon as April 17, 2020.
“Granting this temporary extension will enable Part 90 licensees to focus on continuing to provide high-speed broadband and other critical services during this national state of emergency,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a press release announcing the extension.
The Part 90 reference pertains to the 3650-3700 MHz portion of the band, which wireless internet service providers (WISPs) have been using on a lightly licensed basis, primarily in rural areas. WISPs simply had to register with the FCC in order to use the spectrum, and any interference issues were resolved directly among licensees. That status quo changes considerably with the new requirements – more on that in the next section of this post.
While Pai framed the deadline extension as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that the extension would ensure that WISPs can “keep their eyes on the ball when it comes to helping consumers,” the extension also should help address concerns that some WISPs might not have been able to meet the new requirements in time to meet initial deadlines.
WISPs and the CBRS Transition Deadline
Earlier this year, the FCC opened the full spectrum band between 3650-3700 MHz for use by mobile and fixed wireless providers, who will share the lower portion of the band with incumbent military users. Military users will have priority use of the spectrum, and wireless service providers are required to implement spectrum access system (SAS) technology to ensure that the providers cannot gain access to the military spectrum in areas where and at times when the military is using the spectrum.
A portion of the CBRS band is scheduled for an auction, but about half of it – including the portion currently used by the WISPs — will be available for general authorized access (GAA), an option akin to the lightly licensed rules that governed that portion of the band prior to CBRS commercialization. WISPs will still need to support SAS capability, however – and that is the key requirement of the impending deadlines.
Complying with the new rules also will give WISPs access to the full CBRS band where it is not in use by the military or by licensees. In addition, SAS technology will enable multiple GAA users to share spectrum in the same area in a more efficient manner.
Ultimately this should all be good news for the WISPs. However, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association had argued that in the short term, it would be difficult or impossible for some WISPs to meet the original transition deadlines and had requested a deadline extension. The concern was that some previously-deployed Part 90 equipment could not be upgraded to meet the new CBRS requirements and therefore would have to be replaced, but replacement equipment had come onto the market later than initially expected.
According to a WISPA press release, the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated these challenges by limiting the supply of CBRS-compliant gear.
The waiver “will help customers – many of whom reside in unserved and underserved rural areas – stay connected, while also allowing a more reasonable glide path for WISPs to transition equipment and services to the standards of the CBRS band,” said Louis Peraertz, WISPA vice president of policy, in the press release about the CBRS transition deadline.