2018 Preview: CBRS battle will continue to ensnare CTIA, T-Mobile and others

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our 2018 Preview feature, which looks at the big topics facing the industry next year. Click here for the 2018 preview in wireless, click here for the 2018 preview in cable and video, and click here for the 2018 preview in the wireline industry.

Depending on how the FCC votes on the 3.5 Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) rules, the big wireless carriers are either going to be very happy and WISPs will be angry, or the smaller carriers will be happy and big carriers will be grumpy.

Assuming commissioners vote along party lines, the former is the more likely scenario, although the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) is fighting tooth and nail and can be expected to do so until the very last and final vote, which could come as early as March.

The FCC voted in October to seek comment on proposed changes to the 3.5 GHz 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).

RELATED: A year in, what’s happening with Google, Verizon, Nokia and the 3.5 GHz CBRS band?

Initially positioned as the “innovation band,” the type of sharing and sensing envisioned for the 3.5 GHz band is something that hasn't been done before in the U.S.—and much of the world is watching. The idea is to create three tiers of spectrum usage: a tier for incumbents, a Priority Access tier for licensed uses and a General Authorized Access tier for unlicensed uses. The three tiers are to be coordinated through dynamic Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators. Already, a lot of work has transpired through the Wireless Innovation Forum (WinnForum) and the CBRS Alliance, led by Google and other stakeholders, including Federated Wireless

This past year has been about getting the pieces in place and much debate over the rules themselves. Once the FCC votes on the matter, it’s expected that more elements will be formalized, including the SAS administrators and Environmental Sensing Capabilities that will make the whole ecosystem work.

But first, matters need to be settled at the FCC. In June, T-Mobile and CTIA each filed petitions asking for changes to the CBRS rules, arguing that changes are necessary to promote 5G network deployment and keep the U.S. competitive in 5G. Larger wireless operators generally want longer license terms—like 10 years instead of three—and larger geographic areas. Smaller entities prefer smaller, more affordable geographic license areas and say the proposed changes really just favor the big operators at the detriment of smaller ones.

WISPA, which represents the smaller companies, continues to press for 3.5 GHz licensing by census tracts rather than the Partial Economic Areas that mobile carriers want.

Comments on the NPRM are due Dec. 28, with reply comments due by Jan. 29, after which more ex parte meetings can be held. Any new rules must be put up for a vote with the full commission, and the expectation is that could happen early in 2018, perhaps by March. It’s not exactly net neutrality, but suffice it to say, more heated debate will ensue in the weeks and months ahead.