NRTC CEO Tim Bryan was among the leaders of a group of rural interests who recently visited the FCC to discuss how to auction the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). Many expect CBRS will be an important spectrum platform supporting a slew of new 5G mobile and internet of things (IoT) technologies. In rural America, the 3.5 GHz band also could support high-speed fixed broadband services to help fill the rural broadband coverage gap.
The wireless industry is forming sides over how the FCC should divide licensed areas for CBRS auctions. The FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking last fall suggesting an increased the size of one class of CBRS licenses – the Priority Access Licenses (PALs) – from the current small-area census blocks to larger Partial Economic Areas (PEAs). Larger service areas commanding higher auction prices could harm rural electric and telephone companies’ chances of obtaining valuable spectrum.
Bryan, accompanied by representatives from NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, NRECA, Federated Wireless and Ruckus Networks, argued in favor of smaller licensed areas in meetings with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, and staffers from the commissioners’ offices as well as the Wireline Telecommunications Bureau and Office of Engineering and Technology. “NRTC, NRECA, and NTCA stated that auctioning PALs by PEAs would foreclose opportunities for rural fixed wireless services,” the groups said in an ex parte letter following the meetings. “NRTC, NRECA, and NTCA expressed their willingness to continue to work with the Commission to build consensus on the final framework for the CBRS.”
At the meetings, Bryan gave a slide presentation to demonstrate the importance of CBRS as a rural fixed wireless alternative. He reviewed NRTC’s vision of closing the broadband coverage gaps through multiple technologies, including fiber optics, advanced satellites and fixed wireless approaches. Rural telephone and electric companies often will require more than one technology to reach all their customers, meaning that providers might need fixed wireless spectrum for only a portion of their service areas.
Rural fixed broadband providers will be able to “thrive” on up to 20 MHz, Bryan said. He proposed establishing county-line borders for certain PALs and continuing to use census blocks for others. Such rules would encourage smaller rural and new participants to enter the auctions. A greater number of rural spectrum holders would increase the chances strategic and efficient use of the 3.5 GHz band, he said.
For example, Bryan said, the FCC has had rules on its books for several years allowing wireless holders to disaggregate their spectrum holdings to rural providers to help fill in coverage gaps. However, few large carriers have ever done so. But NRTC often has disaggregated its 222 MHz spectrum holdings over several years. He predicted that rural PAL holders also would be more likely lease or disaggregate capacity to their rural neighbors if they have the chance to obtain it.