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Some Commissioners Question CMA Bidding Option for 3.5 GHz Auction

Randy Sukow / Sep 26, 2019

This morning the FCC approved a Public Notice that begins the comment process for the 3550-3650 MHz (3.5 GHz) Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS).  The notice officially sets June 25, 2020, as the start date for auctioning of Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in the CBRS band, as Chairman Ajit Pai announced earlier this month.

The Commission unanimously approved the notice, although Democratic commissioners raised some concerns about a new proposal. The notice asks for public comment on an option to allow some auction participants “to bid at a Cellular Market Area [CMA] level in the 172 CMAs that are classified as Metropolitan Statistical Areas and comprise multiple counties,” according to a press release (PDF). Some worried that opportunities for rural bidders could be narrowed if the Commission allows a choice between county-level and CMA bidding.

The original CMRS rules the FCC set under former Chairman Tom Wheeler set geographic license areas at the census tract level. However, objections from wireless carriers seeking larger service areas led the Commission under Chairman Pai to expand geographic areas in 2018. NRTC was one of many rural organizations that negotiated a compromise of county-line borders rather than larger geographic areas in that order.

“We lost our nerve, and we reverted back to the old” by expanding license areas, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said during today’s meeting. “To make matters worse, in today's Public Notice, we ask about even larger service territories at auction. I think that continuing down this road, narrowing the range of spectrum interests that could use these airwaves, would be grave mistake.”

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks worried about the “unintended consequences,” asking, “Notwithstanding limits on the number of blocks a CMA-level bidders can take to obtain in a single county, how likely is it that two CMA-level bidders could take up all seven available PALs in the counties within the CMA?”

Regardless of disagreements over license areas, all five commissioners were eager to pass the notice and move forward with other proceedings to open spectrum for 5G nationwide and fixed wireless in rural areas. Pai listed several other mid-band actions to expect in coming months.

“We are working on the complicated task of freeing up spectrum for 5G in the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz band, commonly called the C band. This is going to be a critical band for 5G and I'm optimistic that later this fall we will be voting on an order to make a significant amount of spectrum available,” Pai said.

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