As required in a recent appropriations bill, the FCC has begun looking for ways to convince national wireless license holders to lease or sell parts of their spectrum to rural service providers. During today’s monthly open meeting, the Commission opened a proceeding that asks the public for their best ideas of how exactly to do that.
Rules allowing partitioning and disaggregating of wireless licenses have been around for about 20 years. The rules, as Chairman Ajit Pai said, “allow licenses to be broken up into smaller pieces.” Partitioning is when a large licensee sells a portion of its licensed geographic service area to a rural provider; disaggregation is when it sells a potion of its spectrum capacity.
Such deals have been rare. In most parts for the nation, there has been little incentive for large spectrum holders to enter agreements. Today’s FCC’s Rulemaking proposal, unfortunately, does not offer many specific ideas to jumpstart the practice.
“If commenters advocate for incentives such as modified performance requirements, longer license terms, spectrum reaggregation, or another incentive, they should describe in detail how the incentive would likely increase the availability of advanced telecommunications services in rural areas or facilitate access to spectrum by covered small carriers,” the commission asks in a draft of the document. Otherwise, the rulemaking asks commenters for their best ideas.
Regardless of whether a partitioning/disaggregation solution arises, the need for better wireless coverage of rural America persists. Commissioner Brendan Carr told the story of Whitney Klasna from Lambert, MT, who lives about 190 miles from the nearest Starbucks.
“She makes money using her smartphone to produce and upload what have become viral videos. She calls one of her more famous videos, ‘CrossFit for Cows’ ... It’s been viewed one million times,” Carr said. “She can get 4G LTE when she's in the field because there is a cell tower not far away. It covers a highway that runs to the area. There are too many people in rural America that can't get a 4G LTE signal.”
In other wireless regulatory developments, the FCC originally placed an item related to the 900 MHz narrowband private land mobile radio (PLMR) band on the agenda for today’s meeting, but instead adopted the notice of proposed rulemaking by circulation earlier this week. The Commission proposes to reconfigure PLMR (896-901/935-940 MHz), currently used for a variety of industrial two-way communications purposes, “to facilitate the development of broadband technologies and services as well, including for critical infrastructure.”
Signals in the 900 MHz band have favorable propagation characteristics, which could be especially useful for rural wireless broadband services. The FCC suspended applications for new or expanded 900 MHz licenses in September 2018 in anticipation of this proceeding.
As with other recent wireless proceedings, the issue of geographic sizing of 900 MHz licenses in rural areas will be one of the top issues in the comment phase. “Would larger geographic licenses limit the ability of electric utilities or other non-traditional stakeholders in acquiring such licenses?” the FCC asks. “Conversely, are there additional reasons that make larger geographic areas better suited for the broadband license?”