FCC Wants to Change 3.5 GHz Spectrum Rules

The FCC voted last week to re-examine the rules for the deployment of 3.5 GHz spectrum for wireless broadband. This is the spectrum that has generally been referred to as Citizen’s Band Radio. This change clearly favors large carriers over the small carriers which were the targeted users from the existing rules.

The specific changes proposed by the rules include:

  • Lengthened the length of a license from 1 year to 10 years.
  • Eliminate the rules that the exclusivity of a license expires at the end of the first license term. Exclusivity can now extend into a license renewal.
  • Increase the size of the geographic footprint of a license. The license area before was a census tract, which is generally an area encompassing 2,500 to 8,000 people. The Census views a tract as the equivalent of a ‘neighborhood’. The new licenses areas are proposed to be something larger like entire counties or else Partial Economic Areas (PEAs). PEAs were defined in the recent incentive auctions and subdivide the country into 416 PEA regions.
  • Allows license holders to partition and disaggregate licenses between adjacent geographic areas.
  • Eliminated the rules that limited the number of licenses that can be held by one entity in an area. This also would allow license holders to bid on the use of individual channels.

What does all of this mean? This is largely a shift to allow big wireless carriers to obtain and use the spectrum for cellular service. Before the spectrum rules were aimed at benefiting small rural broadband providers. They would have been able to get a license for a small geographic area and they then got a 1-year head-start to deploy the spectrum before anybody else. The first licensee then had an advantage because future deployments had to be synchronized to not interfere with them.

The old rules made it difficult, but not impossible, for the bigger companies to use the spectrum. A cellular provider was not likely to invest in small license footprints and only be protected for a year from competition and interference. But the new rules allow for a much bigger footprint, similar to that used for other cellular spectrum. And the ten-year license provides a long-term opportunity for no competition, as well as a chance to renew the original license.

Basically this is a spectrum grab by the cellular providers to use for LTE or 5G cellular. Two of the big proponents of these changes include Comcast and Charter which want their own spectrum to support their new cellular businesses.

This change will make it much harder for rural deployments by WISPs and other ISPs willing to serve customers with wireless connections. The original rules also envisioned that this spectrum would enable smaller carriers to deploy various small-cell technologies and not just point-to-multipoint radios.

This is another proposed ruling that shows that current FCC is now clearly pro-big business. Almost every ruling they’ve made so far benefits big companies – the big ISPs, the big TV station owners, and the big wireless carriers. This particular ruling is a big give-away to the cellular companies and to Comcast and Charter. Under the rules the spectrum can be licensed inexpensively compared to spectrum that is auctioned. The new rules allowing large coverage areas will greatly disadvantage small carriers that only want to license a small service area – which was the entire purpose of the original rules for the spectrum.

The FCC voted 4-1 to consider the new rules, which is a likely indication that the new rules will be adopted after the required deliberation time required by FCC rules.

CAF II and Wireless

Frontier Communications just announced that they are testing the use of wireless spectrum to complete the most rural portions of their CAF II build-out requirement. The company accepted $283 million per year for six years ($1.7 billion total) to upgrade broadband to 650,000 rural homes and businesses. That’s a little over $2,600 per location passed. The CAF II program requires that fund recipients increase broadband to speeds of at least 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up.

Frontier will be using point-to-multipoint radios where a transmitter is mounted on a tower with the broadband signal then sent to a small antenna at each customer’s location. Frontier hasn’t said what spectrum they are using, but in today’s environment it’s probably a mix of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz WiFi spectrum and perhaps also some 3.65 GHz licensed spectrum. Frontier, along with CenturyLink and Consolidated told the FCC a year ago that they would be interested in using the spectrum in the ‘citizens’ radio band’ between 3.7 MHz and 4.2 MHz for this purpose. The FCC opened a docket looking into this spectrum in August and comments in that docket were due to the FCC last week.

I have mixed feelings about using federal dollars to launch this technology. On the plus side, if this is done right this technology can be used to deliver bandwidth up to 100 Mbps, but in a full deployment speeds can be engineered to deliver consistent 25 Mbps download speeds. But those kinds of speeds require an open line-of-sight to customers, tall towers that are relatively close to customers (within 3 – 4 miles) and towers that are fiber fed.

But when done poorly the technology delivers much slower broadband. There are WISPs using the technology to deliver speeds that don’t come close to the FCC’s 10/1 Mbps requirement. They often can’t get fiber to their towers and they will often serve customers that are much further than the ideal distance from a tower. Luckily there are many other WISPs using the technology to deliver great rural broadband.

The line-of-sight issue is a big one and this technology is a lot harder to make work in places with lots of trees and hills, making it a difficult delivery platform in Appalachia and much of the Rockies. But the technology is being used effectively in the plains and open desert parts of the country today.

I see downsides to funding this technology with federal dollars. The primary concern is that the technology is not long-lived. The electronics are not generally expected to last more than seven years and then the radios must be replaced. Frontier is using federal dollars to get this installed, and I am sure that the $2,600 per passing is enough to completely fund the deployment. But are they going to keep pouring capital into replacing radios regularly over time? If not, these deployments would be a sick joke to play on rural homes – giving them broadband for a few years until the technology degrades. It’s hard to think of a worse use of federal funds.

Plus, in many of areas where the technology is useful there are already WISPs deploying point-to-multipoint radios. It seems unfair to use federal dollars to compete against firms who have made private investments to build the identical technology. The CAF money ought to be used to provide something better.

I understand Frontier’s dilemma. In the areas where they took CAF II money they are required to serve everybody who doesn’t have broadband today. My back-of-the envelope calculations tells me that the CAF money was not enough for them to extend DSL into the most rural parts of the CAF areas since extending DSL means building fiber to feed the DSLAMs.

As I have written many times I find the whole CAF program to be largely a huge waste of federal dollars. Using up to $10 billion to expand DSL, point-to-multipoint, and in the case of AT&T cellular wireless is a poor use of our money. That same amount of money could have seeded matching broadband that could be building a lot of fiber to these same customers. We only have to look at state initiatives like the DEED grants in Minnesota to see that government grant money induces significant private investment in fiber. And as much as the FCC doesn’t want to acknowledge it, building anything less than fiber is nothing more than a Band-aid. We can and should do better.