FCC’s O’Rielly makes case for rule changes at CBRS Alliance meeting

CBRS Alliance members heard firsthand from FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly on his current thoughts about 3.5 GHz—and make no mistake, he sees quite a few areas that need fixing.

O’Rielly was the keynote speaker at a CBRS Alliance open session hosted by Qualcomm in San Diego on Tuesday. The meeting also featured workshops and an update on CBRS Alliance activities.

O’Rielly said it's fair to ask: What problem is the FCC trying to solve by changing CBRS? The commission voted on final rules last year, although O’Rielly and fellow Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai at the time expressed reservations about the whole “experiment” at 3.5 GHz. There were rumblings earlier this year that efforts may be under way to change the CBRS rules and CTIA and T-Mobile more recently filed formal petitions toward that end.

O’Rielly told the alliance on Tuesday that since the commission started the 3.5 GHz proceeding in 2012, circumstances with regards to the service band have changed, according to a transcript of his remarks. “Although many entities are willing to explore unlicensed GAA [General Authorized Access] use, those interested in more extensive, next-generation builds require greater certainty that investment would not be stranded, and this is precisely why they want the protections afforded licenses," he said. "To be clear, it is not just the four nationwide wireless providers seeking changes; in fact, I recently met with a mid-sized fixed wireless broadband provider who seeks the same assurances.”

His position from the very beginning has been that the Priority Access License, or PAL, structure was flawed and needed to be fixed, he said. For that reason, he was pleased to accept the chairman’s offer to lead the effort to review the rules to ensure they maximize innovation, investment and the efficient use of these frequencies. “In conducting this review, I have met with many of the entities represented in this room,” he said. “While a few said make no changes, many agreed that the PALs could use some serious improvements and one provider wanted a do over to license the entire band.”

The commissioner reiterated that he is not predisposed to disrupt the three-tier structure of the spectrum sharing system; he just wants all three tiers of the so-called "experiment" to work. His view is the band should be designed to permit as many uses as possible and the market should decide the highest value for the spectrum.

Procedurally, he said, the hope is that the commission will vote on a notice of proposed rulemaking of “proposed enhancements” to CBRS in the fall and an order by the New Year or soon thereafter. He also said that he will read all of the comments and replies that are due next week, and “yes, I will read them all.” But, he added, it was apparent early on that the debate would focus on the request of certain stakeholders for longer license terms, renewability and larger geographic areas, which are what mobile carriers have been pushing for.

O'Rielly said he was fully aware there may be a difference of opinion with his positions from the crowd. “Some of you may cheer what I am going to say, and others may want to throw things at me. I, of course, encourage the former and certainly discourage the latter, but for those of you with whom I may not see eye-to-eye, I hope that you will understand my point of view. I always say that I will be totally upfront and honest about where I stand on the issues.”

The international focus on 5G spectrum has shifted to the mid-bands that carry more data than low bands but propagate farther than millimeter wave, and 3.5 GHz is in the middle of the spotlight, he added. Europe already has identified 3.4 to 3.8 GHz as its primary band for early 5G development. Japan, Korea and China are also proponents of using 3.4 to 3.8 GHz for 5G and their manufacturers have all been active in the standards-setting process for those bands.

The CBRS Alliance has grown to 62 members at last count and was formed to foster the 3.5 GHz ecosystem, also known as the CBRS band. Sponsor members include Access Technologies (Alphabet), Ericsson, Federated Wireless, Intel, Nokia, Qualcomm and Ruckus Wireless, but all four major U.S. wireless operators also are members, along with American Tower, Crown Castle and a host of others.

Changes to the CBRS rules have prompted worries among some stakeholders who have made significant investments based on the rules that were initially adopted. Rise Broadband and Baicells Technologies recently met with O’Rielly’s legal advisor to express their concerns. They pointed out that support for Priority Access License (PAL) rule changes proposed by CTIA and T-Mobile are largely limited to other mobile carriers and their suppliers.

Rick Harnish, director of WISP relations for Baicells, explained that Baicells relied on the CBRS rules adopted in 2015 as a key driver of its decision to enter the U.S. market. In one short year, Baicells’ customers have deployed more than 1,500 “CBRS-ready” access points in 3650-3700 MHz spectrum that can, through a firmware upgrade, operate in the 3550-3650 MHz band without the need for new hardware or truck rolls.

The FCC at its Aug. 3 meeting will vote on a mid-band spectrum Notice of Inquiry, with the main focus being the 3.7-4.2 GHz band. Recently, an ad-hoc coalition of equipment manufacturers, wireless providers and unlicensed users have been discussing ideas on how to open the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for licensed mobile services while protecting or accommodating incumbents, O'Rielly said. “This will provide an excellent opportunity because it is so close to the 3.5 GHz PALs,” he added.