In a proceeding that’s been years in the making, the Federal Communications Commission today voted to issue a public notice seeking comment on procedures to be used for the auction of Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in a portion of the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band. The auction is scheduled to start June 25, 2020.
While U.S. wireless carriers are eligible to use the unlicensed General Authorized Access (GAA) portion of the CBRS band—and expect to do so—it’s the licensed PALs portion that’s designed to bring them to the bidding table. That, in part, is why it’s taken so long to get to this point.
The FCC approved rules for the 3.5 GHz band under the prior presidential administration, with Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, serving as the chairman. But when current Republican Chairman Ajit Pai took over, he tapped fellow Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly to review the rules so that they would be more 5G friendly. Other regions of the world allocated 3.5 GHz for 5G early on.
“Hallelujah,” O’Rielly said today. “This item provides interested parties not only the opportunity to comment on the proposed auction structure, but also necessary heads up so that they can formulate their bidding strategies and business plans to actively participate in the auction.”
He noted that it’s been a great two weeks for CBRS, with last week’s OnGo launch event and the FCC and industry progressing to the initial commercial deployment (ICD) phase. O’Rielly has spent much of this time shepherding the revised rules through the commission and public review process.
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Although Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel repeated calls to put more mid-band spectrum on the fast track, Pai said a key priority for this commission has been to free up mid-band spectrum for next-generation wireless services. The FCC already took steps this past summer to make the 2.5 GHz band more accessible to more entities, and to move toward an auction next year of wide swaths of unused spectrum in that band. He is optimistic that later this fall, the FCC will be voting on an item to make a “significant” amount of spectrum available in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, also known as the C-Band, for 5G.
Like the 2.5 GHz band, the 3.5 GHz band is prime mid-band spectrum that holds particular promise for 5G. Thanks to O’Rielly’s leadership, the commission made reforms that make the 3.5 GHz band much more appealing for 5G operations, Pai said, adding that auction winners should be well-positioned to offer services in the band very quickly.
Commissioner Brendan Carr noted that the entities that celebrated the initial commercial kick-off of the CBRS band and OnGo brand last week are not often known for holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." Verizon, AT&T, Google and Charter Communications were part of that group, as well as the FCC, U.S. Department of Defense and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
Reservations about changes
The FCC adopted an unprecedented three-tiered model for spectrum sharing and management in the 3.5 GHz band, but in revisiting the framework, “we lost our nerve and we reverted back to the old,” said Roseworcel, a Democrat. “Most notably, we expanded license sizes from census tracts to counties, shutting out new spectrum interests that cannot compete at that scale. To make matters worse, in today’s Public Notice we ask about even larger service territories at auction. I think that continuing down this road, narrowing the range of spectrum interests that could use these airwaves, would be a grave mistake.”
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, the other Democrat on the commission, said he’s excited to move the ball forward on distributing the licenses. Dubbed Auction 105, the 3.5 GHz auction will be one of the most complex auctions the FCC has conducted to date, with about 3,200 license areas available for bidding, he said.
But, he also expressed some concern. While not a commissioner when the agency voted last year to revise the geographic configuration of the PALs from census tracts to counties, he shares Commissioner Rosenworcel’s point about whether the current approach will adequately encourage the innovative uses and new entrants that were the focus of the original 3.5 GHz order in 2015. He did, however, successfully request edits to include language clarifying the relationship between Cellular Market Area (CMA)-level and county-level bids.
According to an FCC fact sheet (PDF), Auction 105 will offer seven PALs in each county-based license area, for a total of 22,631 PALs nationwide. Each PAL will consist of a 10-megahertz unpaired channel. PALs are 10-year renewable licenses. Consistent with the commission’s rules that permit PALs to aggregate up to four PALs in any license area at any given time, bidders in Auction 105 will be allowed to bid for up to four generic blocks of spectrum per county.