CBRS Vote Proves Strident

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel

The FCC voted Tuesday to update the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the 3.5 GHz band, saying the changes would increase incentives, innovation and investment for 5G and other services. Supporters, like large carriers, say the changes will provide certainty to those who wants to introduce new services. Opponents, including some small broadband providers, say it will do the opposite, and the result will be a 5G-only band.

FCC Commissioners took care to describe their compromise effort during the vote, but divisions were evident.  

The original rules, established in 2015, enable shared access between federal and non-federal users, consisting of incumbents, Priority Access Licenses (PALs) and General Authorized Access users. The Report and Order changes the size of PAL licenses from census tracts to counties and extends PAL license terms to 10 years.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said it “was clear” the rules crafted by the past Administration “were not supportive” of 5G networks. The rules were “designed for some to get licenses on the cheap. We right the ship today so there’s opportunity for all, regardless of whether an entity is interested in fixed or mobile wireless technology.”

O’Rielly, who led the agency’s effort on the issue, added: “Contrary to what some are asserting, we did not just throw a dart in the air, or draw straws because we couldn’t figure out what to do. We are not turning this into a 5G-only band. Such claims are gibberish.” The license area will be small enough to attract small wireless providers and cable entrants too, he said.

The issue shows the “practical difference between designing and deploying real-world wireless networks,” said FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. “Our approach is targeted at ensuring robust investment, suited to a wide variety of business models.” The decision includes several things the agency has never done before, he asserted. “We’ve never auctioned licenses over geographic areas as small as counties. We’ve never used [technology] to coordinate spectrum access,” adding he’s confident the “innovative” approach will succeed.

“Here, we fall short. Our innovative spirit is in retreat,” said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted against the changes. “Instead of adopting a bold, new vision we adopt more of the stale policies of the past,” she said. Rosenworcel ticked off some of the 200 experimental authorization applications the agency received for the CBRS band. The port of Los Angeles wanted to explore its use for shipping data, and others wanted to use it to enable aerial drones and robotics. “What this agency adopts today is a hollow version of our original proposal.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said striking a balance on the issue “wasn’t easy,” and the agency “is charting a middle course.” He stressed some associations with rural carriers as members, like NTCA and CCA, back the agency’s decision.  “All of these reforms will make this band a sandbox for 5G,” Pai said before the item passed 3-1. Questions? Email us.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

October 24, 2018