FCC’s 3.5 GHz CBRS proposal sparks cheers, fears

As expected, the FCC’s latest plan for the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band isn’t going to please everyone, but FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly says it achieves a sound and just result.

In an opinion published Tuesday, O’Rielly outlined his preferred way for the band to take shape once and for all. The band has been under the microscope the past 18 months as industry and regulators debated how it should ultimately look.

As O’Rielly noted, the size of the geographic license size for Priority Access Licenses (PALs) was the most contentious change contemplated to the rules.

“While larger providers initially sought extremely large licenses (with some even wanting to redo the entire channel allocation to eliminate unlicensed use), some smaller entities wanted to preserve very small license sizes, allocated by census tracts,” O’Rielly wrote. “In the end, I am proposing to modify our rules to permit county-size licenses with the possibility for combinatorial bidding in the largest markets, which I believe is a well-balanced approach addressing all legitimate concerns. No one is likely to be entirely pleased with this outcome, but it achieves a sound and just result.”

RELATED: 3.5 GHz CBRS band lands on FCC’s October agenda

CTIA, which had petitioned the FCC last year to review the rules and argued for larger PALs, took the commission’s latest move as a positive step forward for mid-band spectrum.

“Commissioner O’Rielly is right that freeing up mid-band spectrum is critical to winning the global race to 5G,” said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker in a statement. “Other countries have already moved to license 3.5 GHz spectrum with investment-friendly policies and it’s imperative that the United States keep pace. We urge the FCC to support these common sense proposals which will promote investment and help spur future innovation across our economy.”

The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), which had reached a compromise with CTIA over license sizes, applauded the FCC for its work in the 3.5 GHz band and other mid-band opportunities.

“I am glad that the FCC is taking another significant step to bring this item to a close and expedite the deployment of mid-band spectrum for the good of consumers and competitive carriers,” said CCA President and CEO Steven Berry in a statement. “All Americans, especially those in rural parts of the country, will have access to the 5G services they so desperately need if the FCC adopts smart policies to implement the 3.5 GHz spectrum regime.”

Others interpret the proposed rules as simply another feather in the cap of big wireless carriers.

“The draft Order proposes to transform CBRS from a Citizens’ band into a traditional cellular band,” said Michael Calabrese, director, Wireless Future Program at New America's Open Technology Institute, in a statement. “As feared by consumer advocates, rural ISPs and virtually every industry stakeholder other than the big mobile carriers, the loss of small and affordable licenses will stifle innovation and competition in the 5G ecosystem. The robust 5G ecosystem the nation needs would have been advanced by small-area licenses with competitive renewal. Instead the Chairman is shutting out rural providers and every other enterprise with localized needs for interference-protected spectrum. Consumers and U.S. productivity will pay the price.”

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) also isn't happy with how the rules are turning out, issuing a statement saying it’s concerned the FCC’s new proposal to auction CBRS licenses by counties will slow the deployment of fixed wireless broadband networks in rural America.

“To be clear, the winners here will be large companies that will foreclose meaningful opportunities for rural small businesses to compete for mid-band spectrum, which is critically important for them to deliver broadband services to millions of rural Americans that do not have access to 25/3 Mbps broadband service in their homes, farms, and businesses,” said WISPA President and CEO Claude Aiken in a statement.

“While we are pleased that the FCC is moving forward with rules, and that those rules reject the ill-conceived idea of auctioning Priority Access Licenses (PALs) at the Partial Economic Area (PEA) level, the combination of county-sized licenses­­ – especially where they are subject to package bidding – plus long license terms and renewability will shut out a significant number of our members from using licensed CBRS spectrum to deliver affordable, reliable broadband services to under-served rural areas,” Aiken added.

WISPA is still hopeful it can change the commission’s tune. The organization said it will continue to engage with the commissioners and their staffs to seek changes to the draft item and advocate for build-out and auction rules that will “truly unlock the potential of this band to enable rural broadband deployment and competition.”