Amid High Drama, FCC Votes to Open 2.5 GHz to Wireless Use

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The FCC voted Wednesday to update its rules for the 2.5 GHz band to make this mid-band spectrum available for advanced wireless services. The 2.5 GHz band is the single largest band of contiguous spectrum below 3 GHz. It offers favorable coverage and capacity characteristics for next-generation mobile services, according to the Commission. 

The contentious vote partially split along party lines, with the majority Republicans saying the band is underutilized and the minority Democrats countering the item is unfair to the schools and educational systems that now use the spectrum.

Inside Towers reported Commissioner Brendan Carr has been querying some current users of the so-called Education Broadband Services (EBS) spectrum, saying some are not using the funds for the purpose which they’re intended, but diverting the money to other uses — like political purposes. “We need to get to the bottom of these shady practices. Strong enforcement is especially important right now, because this order allows national nonprofits and all other 2.5 GHz license holders to sell their licenses potentially at great profit.”

Carr also says the current 30 percent build-out obligation is “out of step” with the performance requirements the agency imposes on other wireless licensees and should be raised to 80 percent. The Report & Order doesn’t specify that, he said, but creates a way to do so in the future. 

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was strident in her arguments. “This order turns its back on the schools and educational institutions that have made the 2.5 GHz band their home since 1962,” and reverts to “uninspired and stale commercial spectrum policy,” she said. “This is a sham,” she continued. “Instead of using these airwaves in creative ways, we take the 2.5 GHz band, cut education from its mission, and collapse this spectrum into an overlay auction system” that “advantages a single carrier.”

Rosenworcel referenced the success of the 600 MHz auction, which uses some of the proceeds to create FirstNet, which is upgrading communications for first responders. Saying the FCC has unused 2.5 GHz licenses in its inventory, the agency could hold another voluntary incentive auction in nine months. That would free-up critical mid-band spectrum for wireless services faster, Rosenworcel said.

Chairman Ajit Pai countered that a large number of EBS licensees lease an “overwhelming” amount of spectrum out to wireless companies. “They don’t use it for educational purposes,” said Pai. “Indeed, over 95 percent of current license holders for our 2,193 EBS licensees today lease much, if not most of the spectrum to non-educators.” 

Given that the proceeding has been ongoing for 14 months, Pai said his colleague, who he did not mention by name, made the suggestion Tuesday, to hold an auction, “with no details on how” to accomplish it. “It would delay an auction of this key mid band spectrum by several years, according to our career staff, thus substantially slowing down progress on 5G,” said Pai.  

The Report and Order approved yesterday gives incumbent entities more flexibility in how they use the spectrum and provides opportunities for other entities, including Tribal Nations, to access unused spectrum in this band. It eliminates restrictions on the types of entities that can hold licenses as well as educational use requirements, while preserving incumbent licensees’ private contractual arrangements and provisions in existing leases. It also removes limitations on leases entered into on a going-forward basis under the Commission’s secondary markets rules; the point is to create incentives to build out in rural areas. Comments? Email us.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

July 11, 2019

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