FCC Approves Spectrum Sharing Plan That May Set Standard for Spectrum Management

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By Lydia Beyoud

April 17 — The FCC unanimously approved new spectrum sharing rules in the 3.5 gigahertz (GHz) band on April 17. The new rules could serve as a framework for freeing up more spectrum for broadband use.

The Federal Communications Commission's report and order and second further notice of proposed rulemaking (FNPRM) will create a three-tier commercial radio service, known as the “Citizens Broadband Radio Service,” operating in the commercial radio band from 3550 megahertz (MHz) to 3700 MHz. The plan is expected to be a boon to small-cell commercial technology, which can enable broadband connections to wireless devices over short distances.

Releasing more spectrum for commercial use and innovation is part of the Obama administration's initiative to make 500 MHz of spectrum available for commercial broadband use by 2020. As broadband adoption increases nationwide, carriers face growing consumer demand for more and faster data use, but must contend with meeting that demand within a finite natural resource. “We have to figure out how we're going to live with a fixed amount” of available spectrum, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. “Clearly, sharing is key to that.”

Three-tiered Plan

The three-tiered plan will protect from interference incumbent Department of Defense users and grandfathered satellite services in the first tier, allow priority access license (PAL) users to obtain three-year licenses at auction in the second band, and receive a further degree of interference protection than the general authorized access (GAA) users operating in the third tier.

Paul Powell, an attorney adviser with the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, said PAL users will have access to 70 MHz of the 150 MHz total, while GAA users will have access to 80 MHz and will be licensed “by rule,” meaning use of any FCC-licensed device is permitted in the band without the obligation to obtain an individual license. They can use any portion of the band not assigned to a higher tier user and can operate opportunistically on unused priority access channels, he said.

The dynamic spectrum access system to be employed to manage the different types of band users is conceptually similar to that used for controlling traffic in the television white spaces, but is more technically sophisticated, Powell said in presenting the item. The rules are intended to be flexible enough to accommodate new wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) in rural areas, as well as for industrial users and utility companies for which current Wi-Fi and long-term evolution (LTE) technologies aren't currently feasible, a senior FCC official previously said when the draft rules were circulated.

The FNPRM asks for comment on additional protection criteria for in-band and out-of-band fixed-satellite service earth stations; for appropriate secondary market rules for the band; and for suggestions as to how to define whether PALs are in use at a particular location.

Interoperability Issues

While the rules were hailed by a wide range of entities in the telecommunications industry, the commission decided to refrain from acting on a more controversial aspect raised in the proceeding (GN Docket No. 12-354) on the interoperability between Wi-Fi users and wireless broadband users in the band.

Instead, Wheeler said the commission would issue a public notice within 30 days seeking input on the standards making process under way for long-term evolution for unlicensed (LTE-U) and licensed assisted access (LAA) technology, and how they could impact the 3.5 GHz band and other spectrum bands.

“We want to make sure we maintain our historical policy of technical neutrality but we are very interested in what these developments are,” Wheeler said.

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn voiced concerns about the potential for deployment of LTE-U/LAA to create a lack of interoperability in the band similar to that which resulted in the lower 700 MHz band and affected Auction 73 of that band in 2008.

While the rules adopted at the meeting should help spur more efficient spectrum use, Clyburn said she cautioned that the full benefits of the 3.5 GHz band might not be realized unless there is a standard setting process that includes cooperation from all interested parties.

Fellow Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the FCC should proceed with the principle that unlicensed spectrum should be open to anyone who plays by the rules.

Consumer Groups Weigh In

Groups including Public Knowledge, and the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute opposed proposals from Verizon Communications, Inc. and Qualcomm, Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of chips used in wireless technology, to use LTE-U/LAA in the 3.5 GHz band.

Qualcomm is interested in deploying small-cells with LTE cellular capability in the 3.5 GHz band and operating as LTE in the PAL part of the band and as LTE-U/LAA in the GAA part, Dean Brenner, Qualcomm senior vice president of government affairs, told Bloomberg BNA April 9. Wireless providers share that interest.

Consumer groups, however, have said that the proposal would allow carriers using a non-standardized technology to act as gatekeepers to the GAA portion of the band. Depending on how the technology is deployed, Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld said, it could foreclose on fostering greater broadband competition, particularly from “Wi-Fi first” mobile providers like Republic Wireless, which offers low-cost mobile plans and relies primarily on Wi-Fi signals to offer communications services.

“It gives the capacity to become a very anti-competitive tool,” Feld told Bloomberg BNA after the FCC meeting.

The LTE/LAA issue is “a major fight” and could impact FCC action on other bands, notably its work on “spectrum frontiers” in the higher level 5 GHz band, Feld said.

Although the public notice will be for the purposes of information gathering, it still sends a strong statement on the issue, according to Feld. “What it says is—especially for this chairman and this commission—is we've got an eye on you,” he said. “Clyburn's statement showed that if the chairman ever wants to do something about this, he's got at least one vote to take this into the FCC.”

Small-Cell Siting, 5G Deployment

The FCC's two Republican commissioners concurred in part but voiced concerns with several aspects of the rules, noting their appreciation that many of their recommendations had been taken into account.

Commissioner Ajit Pai said the FCC needed to step up work on deploying unlicensed spectrum in the 5GHz band, while Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said the agency should turn its “immediate attention” to issues of small cell infrastructure.

“The Commission needs to do more to facilitate the siting of small cell systems. Although we do not know the array of services that may develop, there is one commonality: they will not come to fruition without infrastructure,” O'Rielly said. “To ensure that the new services flowing from this 3.5 GHz spectrum reaches the hands of American consumers as quickly as possible, we must remove the burdensome roadblocks preventing installation of small cells, whether due to hyper-regulatory state, environmental or historical review,” he said.

It could be years before consumers see the benefits of this rulemaking, so the FCC should redouble its efforts to free up more spectrum in the 5 GHz band for immediate consumer use, Pai said. He has proposed making up to 195 MHz of the 5 GHz spectrum available for unlicensed uses.

O'Rielly said he was concerned that the rules offer no mechanism to grant a PAL to an entity even if mutually exclusive applications aren't filed in particular census tracts. Mutually exclusive applications are necessary to trigger an auction. The rules shouldn't prevent prospective licensees from obtaining PALs “just because they are the only one in a given census tract wanting priority access. We need to fix this in the near term,” O'Rielly said.

Industry Reaction

Telecom manufacturers and suppliers welcomed rules that preserve the agency's policy of technology neutrality, Qualcomm's Brenner told Bloomberg BNA April 17. “That's the policy in place in the wireless area for more than three decades and it's really the policy that is the linchpin for the success of the American wireless industry,” Brenner said. “It's gratifying to see that that policy carried the day.”

CTIA—The Wireless Association said the FCC should take steps to make the band as investment-friendly as possible. “To facilitate certainty and deployment in this band, the FCC should give carriers confidence that the spectrum needed will be available when it’s needed, including rejecting calls for opportunistic sharing of priority spectrum, dynamic frequency assignments and technology-specific mandates,” CTIA Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Scott Bergmann said in an e-mailed statement.

“As supporters of both Wi-Fi and LTE-U, we would be concerned with any steps the FCC would take that would interject a regulatory agency into the standards settings process or attempt to influence that process,” Bergmann said of the forthcoming public notice.

The Telecommunications Industry Association voiced similar concerns. “Protecting services with superior spectrum rights (whether federal or commercial) against harmful interference remains very important in any spectrum sharing scenario,” TIA CEO Scott Belcher said in an e-mailed statement.

WifiForward, a broad-based group of companies, organizations and public sector institutions that includes Comcast Corp, Republic Wireless and Best Buy, Inc. among its members, called for the FCC to make more shared and other spectrum available soon to meet current and future consumer demand.

The FCC's vote “has turned an under-used asset into an ‘innovation band' that will be a great resource for our country,” the group said in an e-mailed statement. “Access to the 3.5 GHz band will enable new investment in mobile broadband, support innovation, and add substantial value for consumers and the economy,” it said.

Public interest groups said the rules should spur the FCC to extend similar proposals to other bands. “Today's bipartisan FCC vote to create a Citizens Broadband Service is a historic step that lays the foundation for spectrum sharing,” Michael Calabrese, director of New America’s Wireless Future Project, said in an e-mailed statement.

“While exclusive licensing will persist for many years, there is little left to be cleared for traditional auctions. There is, however, a potential spectrum superhighway of grossly under-used federal and satellite spectrum that needs to be opened for low-power sharing by both unlicensed users and by priority access licensees who pay for interference protection. The Commission should move quickly to extend this new Citizens Broadband Service to other similar bands with immense fallow capacity, thereby ushering in a new era of wireless broadband abundance,” Calabrese said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

Text of the FCC's press release and links to the commissioners' remarks: http://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-makes-150-megahertz-spectrum-available-mobile-broadband.