The C-band auction grabbed most of the headlines last week, but there’s another mid-band spectrum opportunity for U.S. carriers that’s nearing the auction phase.
At its next open meeting on February 28, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will consider a Public Notice that would establish application and bidding procedures for Auction 105, the auction of Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 GHz band. The auction of 70 megahertz of CBRS spectrum is scheduled to start on June 25.
Big mobile operators have complained that the power levels for CBRS are too low and they’re setting their sights on the C-band for more mid-band spectrum for 5G. However, they’re still interested in CBRS spectrum, both licensed and unlicensed, as are the cable companies.
The commission’s vote later this month represents one of the last steps the commission needs to take to make the CBRS licenses available for 5G and other next-generation services, noted FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly in a blog post on Friday. Having taken the lead on the issue, he also noted that it has been a long road to get to this point—one that involved re-crafting the rules after they were initially approved by the prior administration under from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
O’Rielly said it took a lot of work and compromise to “fix the misguided licensed structure left over from the last Commission,” and to make licenses more attractive to a diverse assortment of potential bidders. That meant addressing the needs of traditional commercial mobile providers, utilities, private network users, fixed wireless providers, cable operators, the unlicensed community and more.
“In the end, the final compromise offers county-sized licenses—far smaller than the Commission's normal size—in 10 megahertz blocks that are renewable like our traditional licenses, providing all potential applicants with the confidence needed to bid, invest, and deploy networks without the fear of capital investment being stranded,” he wrote. “Licensees need the assurance that if they build, follow the rules, and put their spectrum into use to serve the American people, then they will not be at risk of losing their licenses in the future.”
One mechanism that was planned for the 3.5 GHz auction that didn’t make the cut was Cellular Market Area (CMA)-level bidding, which was part of the public notice out for comment, and would have facilitated an applicant’s ability to bid on licenses covering all the counties within a CMA. It was opposed by a number of stakeholders, however, and won’t be implemented.
“It is important to note, this proposal would not in any way have changed the license size from county to CMA, provided a price break for CMA-level bidders, or changed the rules they needed to follow,” he added. “Put another way, it was simply intended and designed to make the bidding process easier for those wanting coverage over a larger area. While I am not convinced by some of the arguments made against CMA-level bidding, throwing it overboard should neither alter bidding practices nor decrease the bidding pool. Thus, I asked Chairman Pai to jettison it as part of this new Public Notice.”
The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) was one of those that argued for the rejection of CMA-level bidding to allow a simpler, more competitive and more equitable county-based auction open to all bidders, large and small, mobile and fixed.
In a statement provided to FierceWirelessTech, WISPA VP of Policy Louis Peraertz said small providers throughout the CBRS process have maintained their request for auction rules and procedures that afford smaller companies a meaningful opportunity to acquire PALs.
“To this end, while county-based licenses may not be sufficiently small for mom-and-pop providers, they may be sufficiently small enough to encourage some participation by larger WISPs. But only if auction procedures do not foreclose that opportunity,” he said. “We applaud the Commission for rejecting CMA-level, package-bidding in favor of county-based bidding. County-based bidding will increase flexibility, prevent foreclosure of smaller bidders and simplify the auction for all bidders including smaller entities.”
Peraertz added: “Small rural innovators need access to kiosks in a mall to serve their customers, not the whole mall itself. An auction process that focuses on large areas will foreclose their participation, and only exacerbate the rural digital divide.”