AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile score big win with FCC's proposed CBRS rules

The FCC today voted to seek comment on proposed changes to the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) rules, with Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel being the lone dissenter.

The changes sparked controversy because the commission initially voted on rules two years ago and affirmed them last year, and a lot of companies pursued  business plans and made investments based on those rules.

But Commissioner Michael O’Rielly in particular was not happy with the rules as they were adopted and likened the whole 3.5 GHz “experiment” to a three-legged stool with a broken leg. Shortly after being named chairman, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai asked O’Rielly to lead the effort of re-examining the rules, leading up to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that the commission voted on today.

Thanks to a compromise hammered out about the size of the PAL areas, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn voted in favor of the NPRM. She explained that she would have preferred to keep the 2015 rules as they were but decided to vote yes because she negotiated with her majority colleagues to improve the discussion about the geographic size of the PALs. The initial draft publicly released earlier this month proposed to increase the geographic size of the license areas—at her request, her colleagues agreed to back off from that and just seek comment on the idea.

The NPRM, she said, now includes new language asking about offering, in urban and rural areas, a mix of larger PALs and PALs at the census tract levels. Such changes improve the possibility that the commission will continue to offer PALs at the census tract size, she said. (Keeping the census tracts were one of the key asks by the WISP community.) The way it's now worded, there's a greater possibility that a rural wireless broadband provider or small school system, for example, will have a fair shot at obtaining a PAL.

RELATED: WISPA pays visit to FCC in effort to thwart changes to 3.5 GHz CBRS rules

In explaining his concerns about the band, O’Rielly said the role of the commission is not to favor any particular stakeholder but to ensure flexible use is permitted, and if tweaks need to be made to the rules, this is the ideal time to make them while other pieces of the ecosystem, like the Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators, are being developed and certified.

In explaining her decision, Rosenworcel reviewed past U.S. spectrum policies that she described as bold and setting the U.S. on a leadership path, including making unlicensed spectrum available for what eventually became Wi-Fi.

In adopting the NPRM, the commission seeks comment on longer PAL license terms with the possibility of renewal, the larger geographic license areas and modifications to the rules governing license auctions, secondary market transactions and certain technical criteria.

CTIA and T-Mobile had filed petitions in June asking for specific rule changes, arguing that they were necessary in part to keep the U.S. competitive in 5G. The majority of the commission concurred, saying the rule changes will facilitate the implementation of 5G networks in the 3.5 GHz band and accelerate deployment of a new generation of wireless technologies.

"Today the FCC took another important step forward to enhance American competitiveness in the race to deploy next generation networks,” said Robert M. McDowell, chief public policy advisor for Mobile Future, in a statement. “The modest modifications the Commission is proposing in the 3.5 GHz band are critical for incentivizing investment and providing crucial economies of scale that are essential for rural deployment. Mobile Future thanks Commissioner O’Rielly and Chairman Pai for their leadership to ensure that this band is a platform for innovation—and that this novel approach to spectrum management is successful.”

Others were not happy, noting that more than 200 experimental authorizations already have been granted and protocols regarding operations, interoperability, security and device testing have already begun.  

"Consumer advocates and rural broadband providers are concerned the FCC will rewrite the rules to make licenses affordable for only the largest mobile carriers and thereby deny spectrum access to thousands of other companies,” said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI). “America's future 5G ecosystem will be less robust and competitive if the FCC rigs the auction to benefit a single big carrier business model.”

OTI applauded Commissioner Clyburn for convincing her GOP colleagues not to “pre-judge whether licensing areas should remain small or so large that they are only affordable for the largest mobile carriers.” The group also said it agrees with Commissioner Rosenworcel that the FCC’s “current, innovative rules are a policy that will create a far more robust and globally competitive 5G ecosystem, just as Wi-Fi has enriched America’s current 4G ecosystem.”