FCC Looking at Rural Spectrum Rules

The FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on March 15, in WT Docket No. 19-38. This NPRM asks if there are changes to spectrum rules that might make spectrum more easily available for small carriers and in rural markets.

This NPRM was required by the MOBILE NOW Act that was included in the Ray Baum’s Act that reauthorized the FCC. That Act required the FCC to ask the following questions:

  • Should the FCC establish a new program, or modify existing programs to make it easier to partition, disaggregate, or lease spectrum in rural areas and spectrum access by small carriers?
  • Should the FCC allow ‘reaggregation’ of spectrum that has been partitioned or disaggregated on the secondary market, up to the size of the original market area?
  • Would relaxing performance requirements for partitioned or disaggregated licenses make it easier for small carriers to use rural spectrum?
  • Are there any procedural changes that would make it easier to transfer spectrum to small carriers?
  • Are there incentives the FCC can provide to encourage spectrum license holders to lease or sell spectrum to small carriers that will serve rural areas?

If the FCC is serious about helping to solve the rural broadband divide they need to take a hard look at the suggestions various parties will make in this docket. The docket notes that there have been over 1,000 assignments of spectrum over the last decade, but most of these have been from speculators (who buy spectrum with the goal to sell and not use) assigning spectrum to the larger carriers. There are not many examples where the big spectrum holders have peeled off portions of their spectrum for rural use.

Today most spectrum is being used in urban areas but not deployed in the surrounding rural areas. It’s hard to fault the cellular companies for this practice. The low customer density in rural areas doesn’t require cellular carriers to deploy the same mix of spectrum needed to satisfy urban cellular bandwidth needs.

This unused spectrum could be used to provide spectacular fixed wireless broadband – something that is not really a significant part of the business plan of cellular companies. With newer techniques for combining multiple frequencies to serve a single customer, the availability of more swaths of spectrum could be used to significantly increase rural broadband speeds.

There are also regulatory reasons for the pool of unused rural spectrum. The cellular carriers have always lobbied hard to have spectrum auctioned to cover huge geographic footprints. It’s a lot easier for the carriers and the FCC to not bother with auctioning off rural coverage areas separately. The FCC’s coverage rules are also lax that a spectrum license holder can satisfy deployment requirements by deploying spectrum in the urban areas while ignoring the rural parts of the license areas. The FCC has also been extremely lax in enforcing deployment requirements, and license holders in some cases have gone for a decade without deploying spectrum without fear of losing the license.

The big cellular companies have opposed making it easier to deploy frequency in rural areas. They have some legitimate concerns about interference, but there are techical solutions to guard against interference. The big companies mostly don’t want to deal with smaller users of the spectrum. I would expect them to file comments in this docket that say that the existing system is adequate. Today’s rules already allow for leasing or partitioning of spectrum and the big companies don’t want new rules that might force them to work with rural providers.

Probably the most interesting question in the docket is the one asking if there are incentives that would drive the big license holders to work with smaller providers. I can think of several solutions, but the easiest one is what I call ‘use it or lose it’. The FCC ought to change the rules to be able to reclaim licensed spectrum that isn’t being used. The rules should not allow the deployment of spectrum in a city to tie up the use of that same spectrum for a huge surrounding rural area.

While the MOBILE NOW Act required the issuance of this NPRM within a year, it doesn’t require the FCC to act on any of the suggestions made by respondents to the NPRM. I would strongly encourage anybody interested in using rural spectrum to contact their members of Congress and ask them to encourage the FCC to take this NPRM seriously. Over the last two years it’s hard to point to any actions of this FCC that support rural broadband over the interests of the large carriers. The big wireless companies don’t want the hassle of dealing with smaller providers – but that’s the right thing to do. Spectrum ought to benefit all parts of the country, not just the urban areas.

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