Midco, others scramble to replace gear for CBRS

Minnesota lake
Midco operates in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Kansas, as well as in limited markets in western Wisconsin. (Pixabay)

Midcontinental Communications (Midco) and other entities using the 3.65 GHz band are scrambling to replace gear they had already installed after recently finding out from their vendors it’s not going to comply with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules.

That’s resulted in a lot of waiver requests being submitted to the FCC. Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) that have been using the 3.65 GHz band are required to comply with Part 96 rules by April 17, 2020, but for a lot of them, they’re saying that’s just not possible. Many of them installed gear that they thought was going to be compliant and now they’re learning that it’s not.

Needless to say, the WISPs were surprised to find out that the equipment they had purchased wasn’t going to be certified under Part 96, according to Stephen Coran, the attorney representing Midco and other companies affected by the situation. Now they’re scrambling around for a solution.

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Delays, potential flooding and coronavirus  

In the case of Midco, which operates primarily in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Kansas, several things are presenting a challenge to get things done on time, according to an FCC filing (PDF) this week.

Midco explained that unless it’s granted an extension, its 3.65 GHz license will expire and it may have to discontinue service to customers even though it’s been taking steps to complete the transition. The company cites the FCC’s 2015 CBRS Order, where the commission acknowledged that Part 90 licensees could seek a waiver to the extent the commission may have “overlooked … technical obstacles” impeding their ability to complete the transition to Part 96 in a timely manner.

Midco had spent about $300,000 to upgrade its 3.65 GHz access points to Telrad software-upgradeable equipment that is certified as Citizens Broadband Radio Devices (CBSD) under Part 96 of the commission’s rules. The company continued to operate its 340 Baicells first-generation customer premise equipment (CPE), based on statements from Baicells that this CPE would be certified under Part 96 through a software upgrade.

But just last week, Baicells confirmed that the first-generation CPE will not be certified under Part 96, requiring Midco to undertake an unanticipated second hardware change-out for about 340 customers in various parts of Midco’s network that are using that CPE. The company immediately placed an order for 271 new Part 96-compliant CPEs and it plans to order more soon. When the replacement CPE is received, the company will begin the process of scheduling visits to customers and rolling trucks to install new equipment.

The company has done a lot over the past few years to upgrade its network to make it ready for the CBRS transition and it’s not too concerned about eventually getting it done, but it needs more time beyond the April 17, 2020, deadline, according to Nicole Tupman, assistant general counsel at Midco. It doesn’t have to replace anything on its towers, but the switch-out of CPE gear is necessary.

The first generation of Baicells CPE uses a 24-volt power source, but the replacement CPEs operate on a 48-volt power source, she said, and that means a visit to customer locations is required. Midco told the FCC it expects to complete the whole transition in six months.

The time it takes to replace the gear is notable for more than one reason. Many of the CPEs to be changed are in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, an area that floods almost every spring. Flooding could add further delay and longer drive times as technicians have to avoid flooded roads—and some of these drives already are estimated to take up to five hours.

In addition, Midco is waiting to receive about 70 additional CPEs on top of the 200 or so that it already received, but those additional CPEs need to arrive in the U.S. from China, where, the company understands, the supply chain has been delayed by the coronavirus. Efforts were underway to find alternative sources in other geographies.

RELATED: CBRS decision is a ‘bitter pill’ for WISPA

What’s not clear is why the equipment vendors are now saying their products are not going to be Part 96 certified. Fierce reached out to Baicells and Telrad Networks but their representatives were not immediately available for comment.

Filings on behalf of other companies (PDF) asking for waivers tell a similar story. Within the last few weeks, Biacells confirmed to Bluespan Wireless that its first-generation CPE will not be certified under Part 96, requiring Bluespan to change out hardware for 300 customers in various parts of its service area. But it’s not going to get it done by April 17.

In anticipation of the transition, SmarterBroadband deployed access points and CPE from Telrad Networks, including about 900 Telrad CPE7000 units installed at subscriber locations. In December, Telrad informed the service provider that the CPE7000 model would not be certified under Part 96. As a result, it will need to replace 900 of these with different Part 96-compliant CPE. It’s asking (PDF) for an extension of the transition period into 2023 for its 3.65 GHz band operations to continue operating under Part 90.

Other parties have documented the struggles of meeting the deadline of April 17. The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), for example, has stated (PDF) an extension of the deadline is necessary because licensees don’t have enough time to acquire, test and install certified Part 96-compliant equipment. 

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