The FCC has voted 3-1 along party lines to change the rules on licenses for the 3.5 GHz (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) band to make it more attractive for providers of 5G, which includes cable ops looking to up their mobile broadband game.
The move was billed as targeted changes to spur investment in the band and promote more efficient use, including for 5G. The main adjustments are the decision to increase the sizes of priority access licenses (PALs) from census tracts to the larger county-sized licenses, though FCC chair Ajit Pai pointed out that was a compromise from the larger partial economic area (PEA) licenses some had advocated for.
The CBRS band is a mix of PAL licenses and general authorized access (GAA) unlicensed use.
The FCC also extended the license terms from 3 to 10 years and added a presumption of renewal. All things the FCC majority said made the band more attractive to investors and bidders for the spectrum licenses in an upcoming auction.
The FCC is also making it easier to sell the PAL licenses in the secondary market. The item also includes rules to support wider bandwidth channels while maintaining interference protections, which the commission said would provide certainty and stability for broader deployments in the band by an array of users.
The item was championed by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who said the changes were a commitment to free market practices over the previous FCC’s CBRS framework, which he said did not support large-scale deployments or the global harmonization of the use of the 3.5 GHz band for 5G roaming.
He said the previous FCC’s smaller licenses with shorter terms favored small, fixed nets and favored a select group. He said it was like saying, at the dawn of Uber, that only Prius’ could be part of the fleet. He said the FCC’s vote on the new rules “rights the ship.”
He said the item did not just turn it into a 5G band, however or hand it over to the big carriers. He also said he hoped skeptics of that would still bid in the auction, saying anything could happen and no one would have predicted that the two largest carriers — AT&T and Verizon — would essentially sit out the 600 MHz (broadcast incentive) auction.
Pai said the compromise was a middle course that was “just right.” He said it would allow parties large and small to bid for 5G spectrum. As to the suggestion the move to larger licenses was not good for rural America, he said that was just not true. He pointed to a variety of groups, including the Rural Wireless Association, who supported the county-sized licenses.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted for the previous three-year, census track license framework under then FCC chair Tom Wheeler, was not fan of the new approach. Continuing the O’Rielly analogy, she said it was like “doubling down on taxi medallions” in the Uber age.
She called it a retreat from a framework that had encouraged innovation and experimentation, from a bold vision to a return to stale policies. She called the compromise “messy” and not well suited to either today or tomorrow.
“NCTA strongly supports the commission’s adoption of the 3.5 GHz order today,“ said the cable trade group. “County-sized licenses strike the right balance to incent investment in 3.5 GHz licenses by a wide variety of existing network operators and new entrants in both urban and rural markets. We applaud Commissioner O’Rielly for his leadership in developing this compromise solution and look forward to working with other stakeholders and the commission on next steps to make deployment in the band a near-term reality.”
“Today’s action by the FCC, which adopts improved licensing rules for the 3.5 GHz band, is an important step forward for next generation connectivity including 5G,“ said Charter. “We thank Chairman Pai and Commissioner Mike O’Rielly for their leadership on this issue. The 3.5 GHz band is an important component of Charter’s mobile strategy and also has the potential to provide a cost-effective solution for delivering fixed wireless broadband, including in rural areas. Preserving significant opportunity for GAA unlicensed use as well as adopting a counties-based priority access licenses areas will promote increased competition and broadband deployment, bringing new innovations and the future of connectivity even closer for consumers in urban suburban and rural communities across the U.S.”
NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, one of the groups Pai cited, weighed in after the vote.
“NTCA welcomes the FCC’s approval of this report and order following robust discussion and engagement with providers of all sizes and stakeholders of all kinds in seeking to maximize the benefits that can be realized through the Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum band,” the group said. “Today’s action represents a balanced approach to making such spectrum available for effective commercial use throughout the country.”
“WIA applauds the FCC’s dedicated efforts to encourage investment in the CBRS band, ensuring it is fully utilized to benefit consumers,” said Wireless Infrastructure Association VP of government affairs Zac Champ. “Today’s action to establish an efficient licensing process will prove key to the successful and expeditious deployment of service in the 3.5 GHz band. The FCC has provided critical incentives for innovation as the wireless industry deploys 5G services. We commend the leadership of Commissioner O’Rielly and the entire commission in making this band ripe for investment.”
Not so happy was Public Knowledge, which backed the Wheeler-era framework.
“The FCC’s vote to upend its CBRS spectrum license rules takes spectrum that was earmarked to accommodate a wide variety of users, deployment models, and use cases and instead changes the rules and reallocates the 3.5 GHz band solely to benefit the deployment models of large wireless carriers and cable companies,” the group said. “As a result, rules that were intended to help small, rural broadband providers acquire spectrum to serve their communities and close the digital divide have been replaced with licensing rules that have repeatedly failed to provide rural America with real, reliable, and affordable broadband access.”