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.