7/24 FCC Comments With Public Knowledge Urging FCC To Reject Calls For Changes to the Citizens Broadband Radio Service

New America's Wireless Future Program and Public Knowledge filed comments urging the FCC the reject calls from CTIA and T-Mobile to make changes to the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. 

Executive Summary:

The Commission should reject the changes to the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) proposed by Petitioners CTIA and T-Mobile. As an initial matter, the Petitions should be dismissed because they are, in reality, late-filed and redundant petitions for reconsideration addressing precisely the same issues, and making the same arguments, that the Commission rejected in the CBRS Order on Reconsideration more than a year ago.  Substantively, the Petitions should be rejected because they urge the Commission to adopt a spectrum industrial policy for the benefit of one type of provider (a handful of wide-area cellular providers) to the detriment of thousands of other users and use cases, some of which would compete directly with CTIA’s members. The Commission should trust market forces, not adopt an industrial policy.

CTIA and T-Mobile propose to fundamentally redefine Priority Access Licenses (PALs) to tightly fit the mobile carrier business model and, thereby, to foreclose potential competitors to, or substitutes for, the offerings of the largest mobile carriers. The Petitions propose to convert the CBRS band from a flexible, small cell band that facilitates the widest possible variety of users and use cases, including small rural broadband providers and very localized network solutions, into yet another band designed for the sole use and benefit of three or four national mobile carriers for a particular (and still undefined) set of services generically labeled “5G.”

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 wide-area 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 intention is to make PALs available and affordable to the largest possible number of users, including rural WISPs, 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.

Auctioning licenses with coverage areas larger than census tracts would undermine the purpose of this small cell innovation band. 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. Since mobile carriers already have coverage spectrum and networks, the use of 3.5 GHz to densify networks with additional capacity would almost certainly be targeted at – and limited to – urban core and other high-traffic and high-ARPU locations. 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. 

The CTIA and T-Mobile Petitions compound the foreclosure effect of their proposal to license only very large geographies by proposing to replace limited-term PALs with 10-year license terms that renew automatically, creating virtually permanent license rights. Converting PAL licenses into traditional cellular industry licenses, as CTIA proposes, would make PALs prohibitively expensive and uneconomic for all but the largest wide-area mobile carriers for several distinct reasons explained herein. 

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.

The Commission should summarily reject T-Mobile’s proposal to disrupt the balance the Commission struck between licensed and effectively unlicensed access to this mid-band spectrum.  T-Mobile’s extreme proposal would also pull the rug out from under rural WISPs and the many innovative use cases and market entrants that are already well along in their plans to intensively use the band to meet a myriad of local needs described in the next section.

Finally, our groups strongly oppose the proposals by CTIA and T-Mobile to rescind public disclosure of the 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. We also oppose T-Mobile’s proposal to replace dynamic channel assignment, managed by the Spectrum Access System to protect Naval operations, with specific and static channel assignments.