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How Spectrum Sharing Could Span a Digital Divide

Fixed wireless broadband providers (WISPs) across the country need more spectrum to meet consumer demand, grow their businesses and deliver high-speed broadband to unserved and underserved rural communities. Many WISPs are using the 900-Megahertz, 2.4-Gigahertz, 3.65-GHz and 5-GHz bands that are available to them at full capacity, and are therefore looking to sharing in the C-band (3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz) to help alleviate constraints so that more broadband can be delivered to underserved Americans.

Jimmy Carr

Jimmy Carr

The Federal Communications Commission is currently examining ways to more efficiently use that 500-MHz slice of spectrum, which is primarily occupied by the satellite industry. WISPs believe sharing must be part of that solution — and hope the commission agrees.

Our industry association, WISPA — of which I am a member and a former board of directors member — was instrumental in proposing that the FCC consider an innovative way to advance sharing in the C-band, urging the agency to open up the long-underutilized band for better use than its current rules allow.

WISPA advocates clearing 200 MHz of C-band spectrum for 5G and other mobile services via a public auction administered by the FCC. And, for the remaining 300 MHz, WISPA urges coordinated sharing between satellite earth stations and WISPs, the latter of which would gain access to needed spectrum to deliver services to unserved and underserved rural Americans. The FCC is considering this plan and others, and a decision on the plan for the future of the C-band is expected by the end of the year.

Making the Case for Sharing

In order to make coordinated sharing a reality, WISPA members have actively engaged policymakers, helping them hear what the advent of C-band sharing would mean for their small businesses and the rural communities they serve. In September, WISPA sent a letter signed by more than 200 companies and individuals, calling for Congress’s support of the plan. Amplifying this message, WISPA also organized its ISP members to reach out to the FCC, filing letters from 36 individual WISPs on the need to open up new capacity in the C-band.

Razzolink, a small provider in rural California, illustrates the industry’s concerns. In its letter to the FCC, Razzolink said fixed wireless operations have used up the available 5-GHz spectrum, and that other unlicensed uses in the 2.4 GHz and 900 MHz bands render them unsuitable for broadband deployment. Though new Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CRBS) spectrum (3.5 GHz) will soon provide some limited relief in the form of up to 80 MHz of shared spectrum and another 70 MHz of licensed spectrum, the plan for the CBRS band does not do enough to promote rural broadband.

In particular, because the size of the CBRS license area is far greater than the area Razzolink intends to serve, the company notes it is highly unlikely that it will be able to make a business case to acquire any licensed spectrum. Shared C-band spectrum could solve this problem. Its absence, though, will greatly limit the company’s ability to deliver essential bandwidth to its rural customers.

My company, All Points Broadband — a hybrid fiber-wireless ISP serving rural and suburban areas of Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia — also needs access to additional spectrum to meet consumer demand. Coordinated, shared access to the C-band would dramatically increase our ability to deliver broadband to underserved communities. We presently operate in the adjacent 3.65 GHz band, and the same equipment we have already deployed can quickly be adapted for use in the C-band. With this additional spectrum, our customers — and consumers residing in or working near our service area — will be able to access higher-speed broadband services that rival the speeds their urban counterparts often receive.

The importance of making more spectrum available to bridge the digital divide cannot be overstated. Fixed wireless ISPs are using private, at-risk capital to address one of America’s most pressing public-policy challenges: delivering broadband service in areas that legacy telecom providers have ignored. We need access to additional spectrum to continue this work, and the C-band presents the FCC with a unique opportunity to attract additional private capital to bridge the digital divide.

A Balanced Approach

Sharing the C-band between satellite service and fixed wireless broadband service can safely happen and represents the best and fastest way to bring broadband to underserved Americans. WISPA’s proposal is also balanced: mobile providers would get access to additional spectrum to support urban 5G buildouts; the U.S. Treasury would get billions from an FCC auction; and small rural providers would get access to new spectrum, bringing high-capacity broadband to underserved rural communities.

As members of Congress and the FCC have repeatedly recognized, bridging the digital divide is a national imperative. By allocating a meaningful portion of the C-band for coordinated sharing, the FCC can attract more private capital and support thousands of small and medium-sized businesses in their mission to connect rural America. What policy outcome is more important than that?

Jimmy Carr is the CEO of All Points Broadband, a hybrid fiber-wireless internet service provider he founded to bring utility grade broadband to underserved markets, and chairman of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association’s Government Affairs Committee.