FCC Votes to Propose 3.5-GHz Spectrum Rule Changes

A divided FCC has voted on a framework for freeing up new spectrum for wireless broadband that could encourage cable and telco broadband players to use, and bid on, that spectrum.

The vote was 4 to 1, with Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel dissenting and Mignon Clyburn concurring, which is a "yes," but short of full-throated support.

That came in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, "Promoting Investment in the 3550-3700 MHz Band," which proposes changes to the priority access licensing rules for the band to incentivize faster network broadband deployments of fixed and mobile service. Those include longer license terms and contemplating different sized licenses.

The FCC in 2015 made 3.5-GHz spectrum available for licensed and unlicensed use.

NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, joined by members Charter and Comcast in separate filings, backed changes to geographic areas and license terms in the rules.

But while they had wanted the FCC to increase the geographic areas to larger than census tracts, but less that partial economic areas (PEAs), the item simply asks for input on that. Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who headed up the rule review, emphasized that the item did not tentatively conclude that licenses be offered exclusively as PEAs.

Cable broadband providers are looking for more WiFi spectrum, as well as looking to add mobile wireless service to their bundles via MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators), in which they lease capacity from an AT&T or Verizon.

For example, next year, Charter is launching mobile wireless service to its customers as a WiFi first offering in conjunction with Verizon Wireless.

Rosenworcel, who dissented, said the item showed the FCC was in retreat, slowing access to the airwaves, rather than promoting it.

She said the rulemaking guts the framework and takes the innovation of the initial proposal--including the smaller license sizes for small-cell architecture--and "casts it aside in favor of existing business models."

Clyburn said she had concurred after the item was changed to seek comment on a variety of license sized. “The NPRM now includes new language, asking about offering, in urban and rural areas, a mix of larger PALs and PALs at the census tract levels,” she said. “These changes improve the possibility that the Commission will continue to offer PALs at the census tract size.”

AT&T sounded pleased with the result.

"Today, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will help speed up the rollout of 5G broadband by paving the way for critical investment in the 3.5 GHz spectrum band," said AT&T EVP Joan Marsh. "This mid-band spectrum is intended to test a unique sharing model that combines different priority users in a single band. The Commission’s proposed rule changes advance these goals by striking the right balance between Priority Access Licenses (PALs) and General Authorized Access (GAA) users, encouraging investment in the band and in the device ecosystem. We thank Commissioner O’Rielly for his leadership on this item and for encouraging policies that take into account the concerns of all stakeholders and, most importantly, the needs of consumers across the United States.”

John Eggerton

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.