FCC Sets Stage for Commercial Use of New Wireless Broadband Spectrum

New rules governing the use of the 3.5 GHz spectrum arms IoT technology providers with more viable deployment options.
By Ronald E. Quirk Jr.
May 16, 2016

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released a Second Report and Order containing the final rules governing the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the 3,550 to 3,700 MHz (3.5 GHz) band. These rules, which allow commercial shared use of 150 MHz of the 3.5 GHz spectrum, are certain to speed up the implementation of small cell and distributed antenna system (DAS) technologies.

These technologies are mainly used by cellular companies, large and small, to increase transmission capacity and extend their coverage. They are great for enabling in-building cellular coverage, but they work outdoors as well. Internet of Things and machine-to-machine technologies are placing a drain on available spectrum, and that drain is expected to increase sharply as IoT networks grow. Sufficient spectrum at all frequency ranges is needed to support the many forms of IoT technology. The wider availability of the 3.5 GHz spectrum increases capacity and extends coverage of wireless services, thereby providing new connectivity options for IoT applications in industry, smart buildings and homes, and smart-city infrastructure.

Additionally, wider access to the 3.5 GHz spectrum band is important because much of it will be unlicensed, meaning that entities that deploy small cells or DAS networks can provide in-building service economically, as they will not have to incur the costs of bidding for spectrum and paying the requisite licensing fees.

The original rules, released in an April 2015 Report and Order, delineated three tiers of 3.5 GHz operations.

1) Incumbents—federal users and fixed satellite service (FSS) operators
2) Priority Access (PA) licensees that will bid for small census tract licenses in upcoming auctions
3) General Authorized Access (GAA) operators that will have access to 80 MHz of unlicensed spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band

CBRS encompasses the PA and GAA portions of the 3.5 GHz spectrum.

Commercial Benefits of the New Rules and Policies
In the Second Report and Order, the FCC reaffirmed the regulatory approach adopted in the original Report and Order, but it made some important rule and policy adjustments.

The new rules will not only make use of the 3.5 GHz spectrum easier to access, but also permit more efficient and profitable use of it by PA licensees and GAA operators. Equipment manufacturers will also benefit, as the FCC has liberalized equipment interference response time, increased power limits and permitted an alternative RF emissions testing methodology.

Auction Exemption for Rural PA Licenses
The original rules provided that all PA Licenses (PALs) are to be distributed via auction when mutual exclusivity exists. In other words, when multiple applicants apply to bid on more PALs than exist in a given census tract, the PALs will be subject to competitive bidding. In cases for which no mutual exclusivity exists, the FCC will cancel the auction for that area and assign the subject spectrum for GAA use.

To provide more incentive for broadband coverage in rural areas, the FCC modified its auction rules to allow for the assignment of a PAL without an auction in rural areas when there is only a single applicant for a PAL. A rural area is defined as a census tract not located within or overlapping a town containing more than 20,000 people, or an urbanized area adjacent to a city that has more than 50,000 inhabitants.

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