FCC’s Rosenworcel ‘exasperated’ over lack of movement on 3.5 GHz CBRS band

FCC headquarters
It appears the FCC may be close to a final decision on the CBRS band, but Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel says it's taken far too long. (Ser Amantio di Nicolao/CC BY-3.0)

Another FCC meeting is in the books with no final decisions on the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band.

The FCC concluded its September open meeting Wednesday with no new action on the CBRS band—which wasn’t surprising because it wasn’t on the agenda. But it’s been one of those subjects that comes up repeatedly, in part because the band was lauded as the “innovation band” and it’s seen as crucial midband spectrum for 5G. Yet it's still in limbo.

When asked about the timing of the 3.5 GHz item during a press conference after the FCC’s meeting, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly deferred to the chairman, who determines those things.

“I think we’re getting really close to, imminent to [there] being decisions and ready for action on the final remaining pieces that we contemplated in the item,” O’Rielly said in response to a reporter’s question. “None of the debates that I have heard so far … suggest that we’re not sufficiently ready to move forward in the near future.”

O’Rielly, a Republican, has been FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s point person on the 3.5 GHz band proceeding. Back when the CBRS band was initially set up under former Chairman Tom Wheeler in 2015, both then-commissioners expressed their displeasure with parts of the proceeding. Under Pai’s leadership, the CBRS band was afforded the chance for reform, particularly in the licensed portion of the band, which is the most contentious.

Separately during Wednesday's press briefing, Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel answered the same reporter’s question with a decidedly different tone, but one that reiterated her previous level of frustration at the lack of movement on the issue.

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“We have a serious deficit of midband spectrum in the United States. South Korea, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain have already set out midband spectrum for auction. China has already cleared airwaves as well,” she said.

“But somehow, we are sitting here many years after our initial proposal in the 3.5 GHz band and we’re stuck in some kind of bureaucratic quagmire,” she said. “I do not understand. We should have moved ahead a long time ago. I don’t have any insight, but I am exasperated. We should have done this a long time ago.”

The 3.5 GHz band has been identified as a key band for 5G. In the U.S., the band is also unique in that it offers 150 megahertz of spectrum for a mix of government, licensed and unlicensed uses. Spectrum Access System administrators and Environmental Sensing Capabilities are all part of the program to make dynamic spectrum sharing function and work toward setting those systems up continues even while the commission reviews the rules for Priority Access Licenses. The General Authorized Access portion of the band is expected to be ready to go commercial before the end of this year if all goes as planned.

All this comes as calls for more 5G midband spectrum ramp-up. Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri, for example, told FierceWirelessTech on the sidelines of Mobile World Congress Americas 2018 earlier this month that 3.5 GHz will be an incremental opportunity and the U.S. needs to finalize the rules. Then it needs to get focused on the 3.7-4.2 GHz, or C-Band, in part because it has the potential of offering 100 megahertz of spectrum per carrier, which is the amount that makes it worthwhile for 5G. “It’s the sweet spot in spectrum,” he said.

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