Editor’s Corner—Google vs. T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon in 3.5 GHz showdown

A lot of commenters say they are not opposed to minor changes but they're concerned about the impact to CBRS if the commission implements the changes that T-Mobile and CTIA are proposing.
Monica Alleven editor's corner

T-Mobile and CTIA created quite the upheaval when they proposed changes to the 3.5 GHz rules that were passed last year, once again pitting mobile carriers against the internet giant Google and a lot of smaller companies, including WISPs that are serving rural areas, a particular area of interest for one FCC chairman in particular.

In one corner, you’ve got T-Mobile, CTIA, AT&T, Verizon, Qualcomm, Ericsson and others. In the other corner are Google, Alphabet’s Access group, the City of New York, Starry, the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, Ruckus Wireless, Rise Broadband and a host of smaller wireless ISPs.

The short story is: The FCC last year approved rules for the 3.5 Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, dubbed an “innovation band” in part due to the shared spectrum aspect. A lot of work and investments were spent over the past year or so getting this CBRS ecosystem off the ground. But in June, CTIA filed a “petition for rulemaking” suggesting the rules should be changed to encourage investment in and development of this band by changing, among other things, the 3-year, nonrenewable Priority Access License (PAL) terms to 10 years.

T-Mobile, which had been making statements for a while about better aligning 3.5 GHz with worldwide 5G standards, was not far behind, asking for authorization of the PAL on 10-year terms “with renewal expectancy,” and calling for larger licensed areas. T-Mobile argued that making the entire 3.5 GHz band available for PAL users will create a more robust equipment and use ecosystem by encouraging investment, broadening the CBRS "experiment" and generating additional auction revenue, thereby benefiting the public, licensed users and General Authorized Access (GAA) users alike.

Now for the longer story. While on one hand it’s rather audacious of T-Mobile and CTIA to try to change the rules more than a year after they were passed, you can’t blame them for trying. That’s the theme of the day in Washington, D.C., since the change in administration. And they may have built-in allies on their side.

The current chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, whose parents, interestingly, have been served by a WISP (PDF), wasn’t thrilled with how the 3.5 GHz proceeding turned out last year, calling it an “experiment” and one where the FCC should be creating greater incentives for providers to invest in the band. Fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly voiced more complaints, calling the 3.5 GHz band plan a “three-legged stool” that could topple over.

However, in the eyes of Google and Alphabet’s Access (PDF), this so-called “experiment” has succeeded. A diverse set of companies have made significant investment, and a lot of companies, including hospitality providers, energy producers, rural broadband operators and other local employers, are investing many thousands of employee hours and millions of dollars based on the structure the FCC adopted. The CBRS Alliance is alive and growing; at last count, it was up to 62 members.

When did CBRS become ‘5G’?

Google is not the only one making noise about this. New America’s Open Technology Institute and Public Knowledge blasted the proposals by T-Mobile and CTIA, saying they’re tailor-made for the mobile carrier business model.

“The Petitions propose to convert the CBRS band from a flexible, small cell band that facilitates the widest possible variety of users and use cases, including small rural broadband providers and very localized network solutions, into yet another band designed for the sole use and benefit of three or four national mobile carriers for a particular (and still undefined) set of services generically labeled ‘5G,’” they said in their July 24 filing (PDF).

I’m not sure who first deemed the 3.5 GHz band a “5G” spectrum play, but that’s definitely become the label de jour. LTE is easily deployed in the 3.5 GHz band, and myriad vendors have demonstrated products. But what started out as the “innovation band” somehow got lumped into the 5G basket, as has the 600 MHz and really any spectrum today can now be considered for 5G since it’s widely understood that it’s going to take low-, mid- and high-band spectrum. It does seem to be a bit of a clever diversion, though, to emphasize the 3.5 GHz band’s “global harmonization” potential for 5G.

But as Ericsson pointed out (PDF), mid-band spectrum is increasingly important in the mix of spectrum that should be available for 5G, and many nations around the globe have opened proceedings to make the 3 GHz band available for 5G. Australia, China, the European Union, Ireland, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United Kingdom have all taken steps to make 3 GHz spectrum available for 5G. Globally harmonized spectrum is good because it means a broader ecosystem for technology, equipment and engineering expertise, leading to economies of scale.

‘Minor’ rule modifications: AT&T

To hear AT&T (PDF) tell it, what CTIA and T-Mobile are proposing are minor rule modifications that will greatly enhance PAL licensing while having no impact on the deployment of GAA or the development of a Spectrum Access System (SAS). GAA users will still be able to access the full 150 MHz of the 3.5 GHz band under the same rules and procedures previously adopted by the commission.

Sort of in the middle is Federated Wireless, a prospective SAS administrator that wants the FCC to address the pending petitions related to the PAL tier but move ahead in terms of completing SAS and Environmental Sensing Capability (ESC) certifications by January 2018, so that commercial service on GAA spectrum can be deployed in 2018 while the commission considers changes for the PAL spectrum.

It should not go forgotten that this “experiment” has the entire world watching and if the U.S. can pull it off—which signs show it can—then other nations are likely to follow suit. As Ruckus Wireless’ Director of Regulatory Affairs and Network Standards David Wright told (PDF) the commission, the current CBRS framework “puts our nation in front of the rest of the world when it comes to the introduction of coordinated spectrum sharing, a key ‘pillar’ for 5G.”

Like a lot of others, Ruckus doesn’t oppose minor adjustments to the PAL structure, but he said the wholesale changes to the PAL coverage area, duration and renewability that are proposed in the petitions would fundamentally weaken the value proposition of CBRS for a large number of Ruckus’ customers. He also argued it would undo the key principle that PAL access should be a realistic opportunity for all. As others have pointed out, the “C” in CBRS stands for citizens, not carriers.

I have no idea how the FCC is going to tackle this, but I do hope they pay attention to all of the commenters, not just the big guns. While Google may be the biggest game in the world right now or pretty close to it, it’s got a lot of smaller companies in its camp. The investments they’ve made—based on the rules as everyone understood them when first enacted—should not be put in peril because operators want more spectrum on their terms. If spectrum is as valuable as everyone says it is, they’ll find a way to use it without stomping on everyone else’s feet. - Monica