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12/28 FCC Comments with Public Knowledge Opposing Changes to Citizens Broadband Radio Service Licensing Rules

New America's Open Technology Institute filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission with Public Knowledge urging the Commission to retain the licensing rules for the Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum bands to continue to foster competition in the wireless marketplace. An executive summary is copy and pasted below: 

New America‘s Open Technology Institute and Public Knowledge (hereinafter ―OTI & PK) urge the Commission to retain the current CBRS licensing rules and to proceed expeditiously to open the band for GAA use and, as soon as feasible, PAL assignments. The Commission should not fundamentally redefine Priority Access Licenses (PALs) and adopt an industrial policy that refashions PALs to tightly fit the business model of national carriers, thereby foreclosing potential competitors to, or substitutes for, the offerings of the largest mobile carriers. The Commission should instead adhere to the statutory objectives of Section 309(j) and trust market forces by retaining the rules the agency adopted unanimously in 2015. Larger license areas, long-term licenses and non-competitive renewal would convert the CBRS band from a flexible, small cell band that facilitates the widest possible variety of users and use cases, including rural broadband and customized local enterprise solutions, into yet another band designed for the sole use and benefit of three or four national mobile carriers.

In crafting CBRS as a unique framework for small cell spectrum access, the Commission never intended PALs to be auctioned solely to fit the business model of national or regional network operators. The CBRS concept of making spectrum available on a ―localized and ―targeted basis is user- and industry-neutral. As the CBRS Order stated, the policy goal most consistent with Section 309(j) is to make PALs available and affordable to the largest possible number of users, including WISPs providing rural broadband, private ―neutral host LTE networks, office complexes, factories customizing machine-to-machine networks, utilities, airports, shopping malls, and sporting arenas. These localized and third-party uses may or may not have the same capabilities as a mobile carrier ―5G offering from the user‘s perspective. That is a judgment the Commission should leave to the marketplace – as the CBRS Order wisely did – rather than adopt an industrial policy fashioned by an incumbent industry segment to foreclose diversity, innovation and choice concerning America‘s wireless future.

The underutilized 3550-3700 MHz band is already attracting substantial investment based on the technical and regulatory rules adopted by the Commission in the 2015 CBRS Order. The new framework‘s combination of small area, short-term licensing (Priority Access Licenses) and band-wide opportunistic access, open to anyone (General Authorized Access), has so far stimulated interest, investment activity and innovative use cases that exceed expectations.

In rural and other low-density areas, auctioning PALs the size of PEAs, or even the size of counties, would make the licenses unaffordable for rural broadband providers or any wireless service other than a deep-pocketed wide-area cellular provider. A traditional licensing scheme based on exclusive access to very large geographic areas for inherently small cell deployments would not allow the largest possible number of businesses, individuals, nonprofit institutions and other entities the ability to self-provision capacity for mobile data offload, for neutral host LTE networks, or to customize highly-localized networks for machine-to-machine, smart city and other connectivity needs.

PAL areas as large as counties or PEAs are neither necessary for mobile carriers, nor a good fit for the technical characteristics of this band. Relatively low power levels make it an inherently small cell band, particularly in urban areas. Mobile carriers will not use CBRS to extend the coverage of their networks, but solely to enhance the capacity of their networks in targeted high-traffic and high-ARPU areas. The distinction between spectrum for coverage (which fits the traditional cellular licensing model) and spectrum for capacity in localized areas (which is the rationale for the PAL licensing scheme) is critical to understanding why the current PAL rules are better suited to achieve the statutory objectives of Section 309(j) – and even more relevant for 5G in light of the fact that an increasing share of mobile device data traffic (currently over 80 percent) is consumed indoors, on a nomadic and not mobile basis. In addition, it would be far easier for national or regional carriers to assemble larger contiguous areas by acquiring census tracts than it would be for hundreds or thousands of small ISPs or individual enterprises to either justify the cost of a PEA or county license at auction.

As an alternative to large license areas and automatic renewal, if the Commission proposes that package bidding is in the public interest, we suggest that package bids be limited to three or at most four of the PALs (30-40 megahertz) in each census tract. This compromise could ensure that one or more licensees can achieve area-wide (even regional) quality of service, for at least a certain level of capacity, while in most cases leaving at least some PA spectrum available for more localized or small-area operators seeking only a single or small number of licenses.

Our groups also strongly oppose the NPRM‘s proposal to rescind public disclosure of the anonymized CBSD registration information used by SAS operators to calculate protection areas both between PALs and for the purpose of facilitating access to vacant PAL spectrum on a GAA basis. Under the current rules, Section 96.55(a)(3) is already less transparent than the Commission‘s other publicly-viewable (and accountable) databases for site-based licenses, including ULS and the TV Bands databases, which typically include not only location information, but the name and contact information of licensees. The public interest is served by enabling potential operators to investigate the feasibility of providing GAA services in an area before incurring costs, as well as by holding licensees and SAS operators accountable for erroneous or obsolete information that can over time undermine the efficient use of the band.

Finally, our groups oppose replacing dynamic channel assignment, managed by the SAS to protect Naval operations, with specific and static channel assignments.