Rural-based organizations are arguing against large geographic bidding areas for the 3.5 GHz Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) auction set to begin on June 25, 2020. A year ago, those organizations won an agreement with the FCC to auction CBRS licenses by county. More recently, however, the Commission proposed an idea to allow larger bidders to combine counties in 172 Cellular Market Areas (CMAs). In comments to the FCC this week, rural organizations said CMA-level bidding would reduce small and remote carriers’ opportunities to obtain spectrum.
“Granular geographic bidding units produce a more equitable auction format and encourage participation from a wider group of interested entities. Efforts to modify auction design to more closely match the bidding strategies of one group skews the primary market for spectrum and prejudices certain licensees,” NRECA said in its comments. “Wireless communications are critical to the safe, reliable, and effective electric services NRECA’s members provide to rural America and CBRS may be an important part of those services in the future.”
Many rural electrics, as well as rural telcos, could foreseeably use CBRS spectrum for 5G networks or for broadband service to rural homes. NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, also forcefully opposed the CMA proposal and predicted it would lead to less service to rural areas. “Larger carriers understandably have the incentive to focus on the more densely populated and profitable portions of license areas in the face of shareholder demands for quicker returns, and it is therefore unlikely that the most sparsely populated portions of the CMAs at issue will ever see the spectrum-based services that this auction is intended to promote,” it said.
Instead, NTCA suggested a compromise. It called for the FCC to “adjust” its CMA proposal to exclude certain CMAs “that include counties with population densities equal to or less than 100 persons per square mile” from the bidding option. “If adopted, this surgical change … would promote the availability of services in rural areas as well as the goals of a more competitive auction among bidders large and small,” NTCA said.
The FCC set county lines as the borders for CBRS Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in an October 2018 order. At the time, Chairman Ajit Pai said that county lines were “just right” for balancing the interests for large and small bidders. NRTC, NRECA and NTCA were among the rural organizations that formed to negotiate the county-line compromise.