FCC adopts county-sized license areas, 10-year terms for 3.5 GHz CBRS band

FCC headquarters
The FCC said it struck a balance between those who wanted smaller license areas versus those who wanted larger geographic license areas in the CBRS band. (Ser Amantio di Nicolao/ CC BY-3.0)

In a 3-1 vote, the FCC adopted changes to the rules governing the licensed portion of the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, increasing the license areas from census tracts to counties and extending license terms to 10 years.

Wireless carriers sought changes to the rules, which were first adopted in 2015 under the previous administration, so that they would be more favorable to 5G and their own investments. Smaller Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) and some industrial IoT players sought to keep licenses at the size of census tracts.

Last year, the FCC agreed to take another look at the rules, and Chairman Ajit Pai asked Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to lead the effort. One of the issues was how the FCC was going to manage and conduct an auction involving 74,000 census tracts—there was considerable debate about that, as well as how changing the size of the licensed areas would favor one type of carrier over another, large or small.

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The FCC thought long and hard about how it was going to revise the rules, and in the end, the county-sized license areas turned out to be the best compromise when it was clear that a consensus was not going to be reached by all parties, according to O’Rielly.  

“What a good day it is,” O’Rielly remarked right before today’s vote. “We right the ship today,” by opening up the band to not just fixed but also mobile and 5G services. The changes will also ensure that Priority Access Licenses (PALs), the name for the licensed areas to be auctioned, will be available to anyone who wants to bid.

O’Rielly said he was disappointed by some parties’ arguments that their investments will be stranded due to an inability to access the spectrum. That’s false, he said, as no one is guaranteed to win licenses at auction, and he hopes the skeptics of the new rules will still participate in the auction because auction outcomes are unpredictable and despite their protests, they don’t know if they will be outbid. No one would have guessed, for example, that the nation's two largest operators would have essentially taken a pass at the 600 MHz auction.

RELATED: FCC’s 3.5 GHz CBRS proposal sparks cheers, fears

Pai said that striking a balance wasn’t easy, as some wanted significantly larger licenses and others wanted to keep them smaller. He characterized it as a middle course that the FCC is charting, and he said it’s not bad for rural America, citing endorsements by the likes of the Rural Wireless Association and the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA). All of the reforms the FCC is taking today will make the band a sandbox for 5G, he said.

Commissioner Brendan Carr cited an example of a fixed wireless provider using 3.5 GHz spectrum and an experimental FCC license to beam 100 Mbps to customers in Thompson, North Dakota, a town that has more churches than stop lights. The company believes that auctioning licenses at the county level, instead of census tract, represents the best compromise and will support next-generation deployments in Thompson and many rural communities like it, he said.

“While there’s no doubt we’ll hear overheated rhetoric about the decision to license spectrum over counties versus census tracts, remember this: We’re doing something we’ve never done before. We’ve never auctioned licenses over geographic areas as small as counties,” Carr said. “We’ve never used a SAS to coordinate spectrum access. And we’ve never implemented a ‘use-or-share’ regime that can both guard against spectrum warehousing and allows a WISP, a manufacturer, or any other entity to access the entire 3.5 GHz band—even channels that have been licensed to another provider. I’m confident that our innovative and experimental approach to 3.5 GHz will succeed.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the lone Democrat on the commission, dissented, saying the FCC adopted an unprecedented three-tiered model for spectrum sharing and management three years ago, adopting license areas based on census tracts and shortening license terms to three years, setting up a framework for lightweight leasing.

“Instead of doing something new, we are reverting to the old,” she said, calling it a lost opportunity. “In our effort to reach a messy compromise, we’ve created a band that is not well suited to the services of today and offers too few opportunities for the services of tomorrow. This is like being at the dawn of the Uber age and doubling down on taxi medallions. It’s at odds with the experimentation that spectrum policy needs for a successful future—and it lacks the audacity that has been a powerful part of our wireless success in the past.”

Separately, the FCC voted unanimously on a proposal to make up to 1200 megahertz of spectrum available for use by unlicensed devices in the 6 GHz band (5.925-7.125 GHz). The proposed rules are designed to allow unlicensed devices to operate in the 6 GHz band without interfering with licensed services that will continue to use the band.