3.5 GHz CBRS stakeholders duke it out ahead of FCC vote

Whether they like the current draft Report and Order that the FCC will consider at its Oct. 23 meeting or greatly dislike it, stakeholders in the 3.5 GHz space are arguing down to the wire to ensure their objectives get met.

On one side are organizations like the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), which wants to see the FCC auction at least two Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in every market according to census tracts.

“While county-based PALs may be acceptable to larger WISPA members, the majority of WISPA members are small broadband providers that would be able to participate in the auction in greater numbers and with better opportunities for success if the Commission auctioned PALs by census tracts,” WISPA told the commission in an Oct. 17 filing (PDF). “Because many counties contain urban cores where large companies could easily satisfy their build-out obligations, the rural areas surrounding those urban areas would, in many cases, be left unserved with PAL spectrum. By contrast, auctioning census tracts would afford rural broadband providers an opportunity to acquire PALs for targeted rural areas that better fit their business plans and accelerate service to unserved rural Americans.”

The Public Interest Spectrum Coalition also is keeping the pressure on (PDF) to modify the draft Report and Order to include census tract area licenses and to institute meaningful build-out requirements in rural America, including interim performance requirements.

As it stands, the draft Report and Order calls for increasing the size of PAL license areas from census tracts to counties, extending the license terms to 10 years and making such licenses renewable—terms that are more favorable to wireless carriers such as T-Mobile, which is one of the parties that petitioned the FCC to review the 3.5 Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) rules that were originally approved in 2015.

The rules have since been in long-time limbo, although industry and FCC entities have been working hard get the unlicensed, General Authorized Access portion of the band ready for business. Now, with the item finally on the Oct. 23 agenda, all eyes are going to be watching for the final vote.

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T-Mobile, in its Oct. 16 filing, said the draft Report and Order is a reasonable compromise. T-Mobile and others argue that using smaller areas like census tracts creates interference conflicts with adjacent licensees. T-Mobile and CTIA at one point wanted the commission to license the band using Partial Economic Areas, but, acknowledging a lack of consensus on this approach, T-Mobile came to support a compromise proposed by CTIA and the Competitive Carriers Association in an effort to move quickly toward resolution.

“Despite those attempts to reach a resolution, other parties continued to insist on the original structure with no changes—a path aimed at satisfying a small number of entities with speculative business plans,” T-Mobile wrote.

To break the impasse, the draft Report and Order would increase the size of PALs from census tracts to counties. And while T-Mobile has expressed concern that even county licensing creates technical and structural challenges, such an approach “provides significant relief” compared to census tracts, particularly when combined with combinatorial bidding, the operator told the commission.

FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who spearheaded efforts at the commission to finally come to a new resolution on the 3.5 GHz rules, outlined his reasons for favoring larger license sizes in an appearance earlier this month at the 7th Annual Americas Spectrum Management Conference.