FCC Modifies CBRS Spectrum Rules

The FCC adopted Report and Order 18-149 that modifies the rules for using the 3.5 GHz spectrum band known as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service or CBRS. This is a huge swath of spectrum covering 150 MHz between 3550 and 3700 MHz. This order initiates the process of activating the spectrum for widespread use. This spectrum sits in the middle between the two WiFi bands and has great operating characteristics for wireless broadband.

The FCC plans to auction 70 MHz of the spectrum in June 2020 while authorizing the remaining 80 MHz for public use. In all cases, the spectrum must be shared with the military, which gets priority access to the spectrum at any time.

The spectrum also must be shared among users – something that will be monitored by authorized SAS administrators. The FCC named five administrators in the docket: Amdocs, CommScope, Federated Wireless, Google, and Sony. The administrators must report back to the FCC after 30 days to report how their software is handling the tracking and sharing of the spectrum.

The FCC changed their original plans for the auction and use of the spectrum that was originally proposed in 2015. The size of a license footprint is now set at the county level rather than the smaller census blocks. Licenses will now be issued for 10 years with a provision to renew instead of 3 years. Small businesses and rural bidders can get bidding credits. The FCC is also establishing a secondary market by allowing license holders to sell or lease the spectrum to others.

Of most interest to rural carriers are the bidding credits. Small businesses with gross revenues less than $55 million will get a 15% bidding credit. Very small businesses with annual gross revenues under $20 million will get a 25% bidding credit. Rural carriers with less than 250,000 customers will get a 15% credit. There will be additional credits given for serving tribal lands.

Much of the public comments in the docket centered on the size of the service areas. The FCC had originally considered using census blocks, reasoning that rural carriers could pursue reasonably small licenses for offering rural fixed wireless. The cellular carriers wanted much larger areas referred to as partial economic areas (PALs). The FCC finally chose a license size in the middle, using county borders.

The spectrum in each county will be auctioned off in seven 10-MHz bands. Any bidder will be limited to using no more than 4 of the bands, or 40 MHz of spectrum. Interestingly, the ability to lease spectrum from others might mean that a wireless carrier could put together even a bigger swath of the spectrum.

The auction is going to be interesting to watch to see who shows up to bid. The cellular carriers have said that this spectrum is key to their mid-band 5G plans. The industry was already anticipating this order and this spectrum is already built into the new iPhone and a few other devices. The cellular carriers have plans to heavily use the 80 MHz of public spectrum, and they will certainly also chase the licensed spectrum in urban counties. We’ll have to see if they have any need or interest to pursue the licensed spectrum in rural counties, where one might think that the public bands of CBRS ought to satisfy their needs. If the big companies pursue the rural bands, they can drive prices up, even considering the rural company bidding credit.

Spectrum licenses have historically been awarded for much larger footprints and it will be interesting to see how awarding spectrum at the county level will impact the auction. There are already rural carriers using the public portions of the spectrum for fixed wireless service. What is unknown is how much the cellular carriers will also use the public spectrum in rural places, perhaps making the public band too crowded for getting the best use of fixed wireless. WISPs will likely prefer licensed spectrum if they can get it affordably since there will be zero interference. We’ll also have to see if many WISPs will have the financial wherewithal to pursue licensed spectrum.

One of the most interesting aspects of the order is allowing spectrum buyers to lease or sell spectrum. I fear this provision will attract speculators to the auction, which could drive up the cost of buying spectrum and also then drive up the cost of leasing the spectrum. But this also might give small ISPs that couldn’t qualify for the auction the ability to use licensed spectrum.

Another Spectrum Giveaway?

It looks like the FCC might finally be ready to move forward with a plan for Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS). In what seems to be the repeated theme of the current FCC, the rules for awarding the spectrum heavily favor the big carriers.

The FCC has been wrestling with the disposition of this spectrum for years and it’s not hard to understand why. The spectrum sits between the two current WiFi bands and is ideal for data transmission. This band of spectrum would be a huge boon for rural broadband. The 150 megahertz of spectrum could be leveraged to greatly increased fixed wireless data speeds from WISPs. If the spectrum was fully made available for rural fixed wireless broadband we could see foxed-wireless data speeds increased to hundreds of Mbps.

But the spectrum is also ideal for 5G cellular data. This is the kind of bandwidth that cellular carriers need in urban areas if they are going to try to boost cellular speeds to the target of 100 Mbps set by the 5G standards. Additionally, the width of this band of spectrum makes it ideal for communicating with huge numbers of IoT devices using the 5G capability of slicing spectrum into tiny or large bands as needed for an individual application.

This is obviously not an easy decision for the FCC which is why the determination of how to use the spectrum has dragged on for years. They’ve had a wide range of proposal in front of them for how to allocate the spectrum. The big cellular companies have always urged having an auction for the spectrum with licenses covering large geographic areas as has been done with most other cellular spectrum.

The small wireless carriers and rural broadband advocates have been urging a solution that would provide bandwidth for rural broadband while also satisfying the needs of the urban 5G carriers. They’ve lobbied for licensing at least some of the spectrum to areas as small as a census blocks while also promoting spectrum sharing so that multiple license holders can coexist on the spectrum. Under their plan both the rural WISPs and the cellular carriers in towns could use the spectrum, with little overlap.

It looks like we’re nearing the end of the debate and as usual, the large carriers appear to have won. FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly recently released a document that proposes to auction the spectrum off with the license footprints defined as county boundaries. Another boon to the big ISPs is lengthens the term of the licenses from 3 years to 10 years and allows licenses to be renewed. He’s also proposing that county bids can be ‘packaged’, allowing bidders to go after multiple counties with one bid. His article makes it sound like the spectrum will be released next year, so I have to assume that a majority of FCC Commissioners are on board.

He makes his plan sound like a compromise between the interests of small and large wireless providers. However, we know from past practice that the big wireless carriers will buy all of the spectrum in counties with any sizable population centers and remove those counties from the market for smaller carriers. It’s even unlikely that WISPs will win many licenses in mostly rural counties since there are usually well-heeled speculators that buy spectrum with the hopes of selling it for more later.

The FCC could have chosen to deploy this spectrum in a way that could have helped to solve the rural broadband gap. We know that the availability of bandwidth drops off rapidly at the edge of towns and cities. This means that for most of rural America the best broadband solution for now is fixed wireless. The proposal to license spectrum by census block was somewhat complicated, but it would have made this spectrum available in rural America where it is badly needed.

We know that cellular carriers don’t share or license their spectrum to others. There is a lot of existing licensed spectrum owned by the cellular carriers that sits empty and unused in rural America. The FCC is squandering away another opportunity to provide the bandwidth needed to provide robust broadband in rural areas. The cellular carriers will buy most of the CBRS spectrum and will use it to enhance cellphone broadband in towns and cities – an admittedly great use of the spectrum. Yet two miles outside of towns the spectrum will sit unused, when it could be providing 100 Mbps broadband to the residents there. It’s frustrating and perplexing that the FCC won’t require spectrum sharing in places where the license holders aren’t deploying it – not only for CBRS spectrum, but for all licensed spectrum.