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On October 23, 2018, the FCC adopted a Report and Order in its 3550-3700 MHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) proceeding.  The Report and Order makes several modifications to rules governing the band, including extending license terms to 10 years, adding license renewability, and increasing the size of Priority Access License (PAL) areas from census tracts to counties.  Most notably, these items are the last substantial rule tweaks the Commission needed to resolve to move forward with its plans for CBRS deployment.

CBRS is somewhat of an experiment in spectrum management by the FCC.  It will entail third party Spectrum Access System (SAS) managers that will coordinate three tiers of users – General (unlicensed), Priority (auctioned licensees), and Incumbent (largely earth stations and federal users).   The goal is for each SAS to provide advanced, highly automated frequency management that will assign spectrum in nearly real time.  If it works, it will provide more intensive use of the band than manual coordination, while mitigating interference between the three tiers of users.

Way back on December 21, 2016, the FCC conditionally certified seven entities seeking to provide SAS services.  That conditional certification allowed further testing and pilot programs to commence, but did not authorize full commercial SAS deployment.  Full SAS certification is expected in early 2019, at which point users will be able to begin operating under the General Access tier.  Auction of the Priority Access tier licenses has not been announced, but likely will not occur until at least late-2019, given the Commission’s typical auction timelines.

The question now has become whether the Commission has taken so much time that additional relief is required.  This process started in 2015 when the FCC first adopted its initial CBRS rules.  At that time, the FCC gave incumbent users in the 3.65-3.7 GHz band a deadline to move out of the band or transition to CBRS service.  That deadline expires for many licensees as early as April 17, 2020.  That means some current users must transition their systems in the next 18-months even though the CBRS service is not even commercially authorized, yet.

Two entities representing wireless ISPs and utilities have filed a request asking the FCC to extend the transition period for 3.65-3.7 GHz band users until January 8, 2023.  This would allow time for SAS providers to become fully certified, the CBRS service to fully commence, and 3.65-3.7 GHz band users the time necessary to transition their service in a considered manner.  There seems to be little, if any, downside to granting the request.  The 3.65-3.7 GHz portion of the band has been successfully used for more than 10 years to provide applications such as rural wireless Internet access and critical infrastructure data communications.  There’s an argument it was not necessary for the FCC to require users in this portion of the band to migrate from their legacy systems at all.  An unnecessarily condensed migration timeframe will not allow users to evaluate the CBRS and may encourage users to move to other bands, such as 5 GHz.  This isn’t good for the viability of CBRS.  In light of the length of time it has taken to bring the CBRS to reality, it certainly seems like a good decision not to rush the final remaining steps.

The FCC currently is seeking comment on the extension.  Comments are due December 12, 2018 and Reply Comments are due December 24, 2018.

For more information, please contact Greg Kunkle (kunkle@khlaw.com; 202.434.4178).

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On August 10, 208, the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology released a Public Notice seeking comment on the rule changes resulting its 2015 rule-making regarding the 3.5 GHz band.  It’s unusual for the Commission to seek comment on rule changes that were adopted several years ago when it is not reconsidering those rules.  In this case, the Spectrum Pipeline Act requires the Commission to submit a report by November 2, 2018 regarding the 3.5 GHz band rule changes and also “proposals to promote and identify additional spectrum bands that can be shared between incumbent uses and new licensed and unlicensed services under such rules and identification of at least 1 gigahertz between 6 GHz and 57 GHz for such use.”

The 2015 3.5 GHz band Order was noteworthy because it created the concept of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (“CBRS”).  An innovative approach, the CBRS uses priority tiers, an incumbent tier, an auctioned tier, and an unlicensed tier, to maximize investment in the band, while also promoting new technologies.  The Commission’s approach generated significant interest from rural and niche service providers and users that were excited to have a band suitable for high-capacity applications.

It will be interesting to see whether the FCC’s upcoming report will mention that since 2015 the Commission has reopened the CBRS proceeding to make the spectrum more palatable to large wireless carriers. Over the objections or critical infrastructure, rural providers, wireless ISPs, and others, the Commission has proposed to increase the size of licenses in the CBRS auctioned tier to more closely align with metro markets.  Concerns have been raised that such changes will foreclose the innovative uses the band was originally envisioned for.  The Commission’s revised 3.5 GHz rules are expected later this year.

Comments on the Public Notice are due September 11, 2018 and Reply Comments are due September 26, 2018.  For more information, please contact Greg Kunkle (kunkle@khlaw.com; 202.434.4178).

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2016 looks to be the year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will place its biggest bet on the value of spectrum and begin to see whether two novel approaches to spectrum management are hits or misses.

Later this year, the FCC will conduct its Broadcast Incentive Auction, whereby it will seek to transition a large amount of wireless spectrum from television broadcasters to wireless providers.  In a nutshell, the objective of the Incentive Auction is to incent TV broadcasters to sell their spectrum back to the FCC, which in turn will auction the spectrum to wireless carriers.  It’s a “never-been-done-before” type of endeavor with a big upside.   But it could also be an embarrassment if it doesn’t go as planned leaving one FCC Commissioner to state, he is “praying it is not a failure.”  The FCC’s willingness to go out on a limb shows the Commission sees a bigger risk in not addressing the Country’s increasing demand for spectrum by continuing to maintain the status quo.

The Broadcast Incentive Auction isn’t the only spectrum policy innovation that will play out this year. The FCC’s plan to implement a Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the 3.55-3.7 GHz band has garnered less attention from the press, but, if it works, it could prove valuable to multiple segments of the wireless industry.

Under its new CBRS rules, the Commission will largely turn management of the 150 MHz of spectrum at 3.55-3.7 GHz over to one or more yet-to-be-named third party database managers.  Those database managers would be responsible for dynamic assignment of operating parameters to users and licensees in real-time.  The band would be a mix of Federal incumbents, auctioned license winners, and unlicensed secondary users.

For their part, wireless carriers view the CBRS as providing access to a very large amount of spectrum that could be used for small cell and in-building coverage.  CBRS compatible chips in wireless devices would enable carriers to offload very high capacity applications from their wide area LTE networks in certain areas.  In theory, the dynamic channel assignment would allow more intensive use of the band than otherwise achievable through the conventional approach of exclusive licensing.

One criticism of the CBRS is that it replaces what had been a successful spectrum allocation at 3.65-3.7 GHz.  This band, which was allocated only less than ten years ago, was used by hundreds of licensees including wireless Internet Services Providers, electric utilities, oil and gas companies, and other industrial users for high-bandwidth services. It remains to be seen to what extent the CBRS will be suitable for these users.  One potential hurdle – if accessing the dynamic spectrum database requires critical infrastructure companies to connect sensitive control systems to the Internet, expect many of those entities to take their wireless applications to other bands due to cybersecurity concerns.

The CBRS is an experiment in spectrum policy.  As one Commissioner states, “Will it work? […] We will see.