Originally intended as an “innovation band” for the testing of new wireless broadband services, the Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) was created in 2015 to permit commercial and federal spectrum users to operate in the same spectrum band. By utilizing smaller geographic areas for licenses, and short-term authorizations lacking an expectation of renewal, the CBRS was seen as a test bed for a variety of different wireless broadband services, including those of rural wireless broadband service providers.
To that end, the FCC created two new classes of licenses, Priority Access Licenses (PALs) and General Authorized Access Licenses (GAAs). GAAs are permitted to operate anywhere within the CBRS band, so long as incumbent licensees and PALs are protected. PALs are required to protect the incumbent licensees, and will receive protection from GAAs. A key component of the CBRS licensing scheme is the implementation of a central database, the Spectrum Access System (SAS) (had enough acronyms yet?), maintained by third parties who will coordinate among licensees to prevent interference.
At its October meeting, the FCC revised its rules for the service with the stated goal of further encouraging the rapid development of 5G technologies. The revised rules were adopted in response to petitions filed by CTIA and T-Mobile in 2017 which proposed several changes to the original 2015 rules. The FCC sought comment on those proposals, which suggested several changes to the Priority Access Licenses, including adjusting the size of the geographic license, expanding the initial and renewal terms for licenses, and adopting performance standards. Although the FCC did not fully adopt the proposals, the revised rules make significant changes before the FCC has even issued the first CBRS authorization.
License Area: Under the 2015 rules, PALs were to be issued based on census tracts. The intent was to encourage local broadband development, especially in rural areas that may not receive service by nationwide carriers. By highlighting the difficulty of managing the licensing and build-out of service in 74,000 separate census tracts, CTIA, T-Mobile and several other parties argued that the FCC should expand the PAL geographic area to the more-manageable Partial Economic Areas. Ultimately, the FCC rejected that proposal, but instead expanded the PAL geographic area to county-based authorizations.
License Terms: In 2015, the FCC was concerned about the warehousing of spectrum, so it limited the license term of PALs in a particular geographic area to two sequential three-year periods, with no option for renewal. Several parties filed comments arguing that the three-year limit for licenses would serve as a roadblock to robust investment by wireless companies. The FCC has now agreed and extended the initial term to ten years. The FCC also modified its rules to permit licensees to renew their PAL authorizations.
Performance Standards: In light of its decision to extend the license term and permit renewals, the FCC imposed a “substantial service” performance standard for services operating in the CBRS band. For mobile and point-to-multipoint services, a licensee must demonstrate that it provides service to at least 50 percent of the licensed service area. For point-to-point service, a licensee must demonstrate that it provides at least four links in areas with a service population of 134,000 people or less, and at least one link per 33,500 people in service areas with a population greater than 134,000 people. This showing will be required when the licensee files its license renewal application.
Competitive Bidding: Finally, the FCC decided to grant PALs in accordance with its competitive bidding auction rules, permitting applicants to claim bidding credits as “small” or “very small business” entities, as a rural service provider, and/or if they propose to serve qualifying Tribal lands.
Support for the proposed rule changes was first signaled by then-Commissioner Pai and Commissioner O’Rielly in their concurring statements when the original rules were adopted in 2015. Because the FCC is still working on approval of the various SAS database proposals, and because there was a change in FCC leadership in January 2017, it was possible for the petitioning parties to seek revision of the 2015 rules before the FCC issued its first CBRS authorization. To date, the FCC has not issued authorizations for PALs or GAAs, but it is possible that new authorizations could be issued in 2019. Thus, while the rule changes will not impact any existing PAL or GAA licensees, these changes will have a significant impact on the operation of the CBRS band in the future.