AT&T, WiMAX Forum cite separate problems with FCC's 3.5 GHz plan

Wireless industry players are finding a number of problems with the FCC's proposed plan to open up the 3.5 GHz band for a Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), which would enable spectrum sharing among federal and non-federal incumbents, holders of priority access licenses (PALs) and unlicensed general authorized access (GAA) users.

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Comments on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking are due July 14, with replies due Aug. 1. While the wireless industry generally supports the idea of liberating the 3.5 GHz band for commercial use, the devil is clearly in the details as critics pick apart nuances of the FCC's proposals.

For example, AT&T (NYSE: T) representatives--including Gordon Mansfield, AT&T's AVP of small cell solutions and chair of the Small Cell Forum--recently met with FCC staffers to explain why the commission's plan to create short-term PALs would be unsuitable for small cell deployments, one of the targeted applications for the band.

Under the FCC's proposal, a 10 MHz PAL, for one census tract, would be good for one year but could be aggregated for up to five years. If more than one entity wanted the same license for the same year, there would be an auction for the license.

According to an ex parte filing, Mansfield and others from AT&T told the FCC that "adding the 3550-3650 MHz bands to handsets and infrastructure are investments that could be stranded without regulatory certainty in licensing the band to small cell operators."

The operator also noted that once a 3.5 GHz small cell network is deployed to improve customer service, "customers will not appreciate a degradation of service" if a license is not renewed.

AT&T revealed that it has deployed small cells, indoor and/or outdoor, in more than 30 states. In May, the operator recommended that the FCC slice up the 3.5 GHz band into different sub-bands for various classes of users so that AT&T and other licensed spectrum holders could gain more certainty before they deploy technologies such as small cells in the band.

Meanwhile, the WiMAX Forum is urging the FCC to not include the 3.65-3.7 GHz spectrum band in its CBRS regulatory plan, at least not until the commission's spectrum-sharing techniques have been successfully employed over a few years.

The FCC has suggested including 50 MHz from the 3.65 GHz band in the CBRS plan. The WiMAX Forum said that poses a potential threat to 3.65 GHz band incumbents, including more than 100 utilities as well as oil and gas companies and hundreds of small wireless Internet service providers (WISPs). There are more than 2,000 registrants in the band, the forum noted.

"The great irony here of course is that the federal government itself, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), funded a significant amount of the current 3.65 GHz networks. Now, with this proposal, they seek to change the rules midstream," said Declan Byrne, WiMAX Forum president. "Incorporating 3.65 GHz into the new CBRS regime threatens to stall innovation and network expansion in the 3.65 GHz band," he added.

Byrne said there will be time down the road to expand the CBRS with the additional 3.65 GHz spectrum if the new rules and processes eyed by the FCC work out.

For more:
- see this AT&T filing and presentation
- see this WiMAX Forum release

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