FCC Proposes County-Wide CBRS Licenses

The FCC is proposing lengthening license terms in the CBRS (3.5 GHz) band, "modestly" increasing the size of those geographic licenses—the plan is to auction the licenses sometime next year—and allowing them to be renewed.

That is according to Republican FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who was delegated the oversight of the item, which the FCC plans to vote on Oct. 23.

That modest increase would be to county-sized licenses, rather than partial economic areas (PEAs). Cable operators, who are actively investing in research and standards-development in the band, had pushed for those county-sized geographic licenses as a middle ground, literally, between partial economic areas (PEAs) and the smaller census tracts.

"I am proposing to modify our rules to permit county-size licenses with the possibility for combinatorial bidding in the largest markets, which I believe is a well-balanced approach addressing all legitimate concerns," O'Rielly blogged of the item. "No one is likely to be entirely pleased with this outcome, but it achieves a sound and just result."

Related: Charter Sees Workable Compromise on CBRS License Areas

The FCC voted last October on a framework for freeing up new spectrum —it would be shared with incumbent government users—for wireless broadband that could encourage cable and telco broadband players to use, and bid on, that spectrum in the race to 5G.

Cable broadband providers are looking to the band for more WiFi spectrum, as well as looking to add mobile wireless service to their bundles via MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) agreements, under which they lease capacity from AT&T or Verizon.

O'Rielly said that while he supported the work of small wireless ISPs, the census tract license size they wanted were not feasible, while he pointed out that cable ops signaled county sizes were workable.

O'Rielly may have supported their work, but he saw reasons not to support their census-tract push.

"First, the FCC has never auctioned that many licenses in its history and actually doesn’t have the capability to do so today," he said. "Second, the push for census tracts was not rooted in the desire to serve rural communities, as some would like the public to believe. Instead, it was mostly based in a desire to only serve small slices of large cities, such as industrial parks or ports, or suburban markets. Worse yet, some small providers just wanted to obtain licenses with the hopes of forcing bigger providers to purchase them on the secondary market at inflated prices. Third...WISPs have indicated privately that county license sizes can work for them."

O'Rielly was right that not everyone would be pleased.

While the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) was happy the FCC did not go with larger PEAs, it said "the combination of county-sized licenses—especially where they are subject to package bidding—plus long license terms and renewability will shut out a significant number of our members from using licensed CBRS spectrum to deliver affordable, reliable broadband services to under-served rural areas."

"Throughout this proceeding, WISPA and our allies from a wide range of critically important industries have argued against county-sized licenses. U.S. counties vary greatly in size and character. Hundreds of counties cover thousands of square miles; and many contain both densely populated urban areas and less populated suburban and rural areas. Outlying areas in such counties are generally ignored by the larger carriers today (unless subsidies are attached), and such areas will remain ignored under this new proposal."

The group said there was still time to "amend" the proposal before the vote, and that it would not stop fighting to do just that. 

"Verizon commends Commissioner O’Rielly for his leadership in crafting a proposal that will significantly improve the Commission’s approach to the 3.5 GHz band," said Verizon VP, regulatory affairs, Will Johnson. "The proposed adjustments to the Priority Access License (PAL) licensing regime will ensure this valuable mid-band spectrum provides the most benefit for consumers and 5G.  These targeted changes strike the right balance between fostering innovation and encouraging sustainable investment in the band. This spectrum will play a critical role in delivering 5G services to American consumers."  

“Commissioner O’Rielly is right that freeing up mid-band spectrum is critical to winning the global race to 5G," said CTIA President Meredith Attwell Baker. "Other countries have already moved to license 3.5GHz spectrum with investment-friendly policies and it’s imperative that the United States keep pace. We urge the FCC to support these common sense proposals which will promote investment and help spur future innovation across our economy.”

“We are pleased the FCC is moving forward on unlocking the full potential of this vitally important spectrum.  Commissioner O’Rielly’s leadership on this issue has proven instrumental in reaching a path forward on outstanding issues," said AT&T. "We look forward to this item being voted so consumers can realize the benefits of new and innovative services in this band as quickly as possible.”

“The draft Order proposes to transform CBRS from a Citizens’ band into a traditional cellular band," said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project of New America's Open Technology Institute. "As feared by consumer advocates, rural ISPs and virtually every industry stakeholder other than the big mobile carriers, the loss of small and affordable licenses will stifle innovation and competition in the 5G ecosystem. The robust 5G ecosystem the nation needs would have been advanced by small-area licenses with competitive renewal. Instead the Chairman is shutting out rural providers and every other enterprise with localized needs for interference-protected spectrum. Consumers and U.S. productivity will pay the price.”

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.