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Comment Period Opens for FCC's 3.5 GHz Rule Overhaul
The CommLaw Group warns: "Don't let them take away your spectrum."
Economic Harm Resulting from Proposed Rules
The existing 3.5 GHz rules have been in effect for more than two years. Many smaller operators have made investments and crafted deployment plans in reliance on the existing rules. These investments include equipment and infrastructure capable of utilizing the 3.5 GHz band under the current rules. The deployment plans include build-outs that will provided broadband service to unserved small towns and rural areas. One technology company has reported that it plans to deploy over 1,500 3.5 GHz-ready base stations with more 200 predominantly rural broadband providers, intended to serve many thousands of residents in underserved communities.
The proposals in the NPRM would gut those investments and business plans. The smaller operators will not be able to compete with the Big Four to provide 5G wireless service. Rural areas will continue to be underserved.
While there will be a large amount of unlicensed spectrum available in the GAA band, operators using that spectrum will still have to operate with a licensed carrier's anchor channel and utilize carrier aggregation to integrate licensed and unlicensed spectrum, while using coexistence mechanisms to avoid interference and enable flexible spectrum use. Accordingly, the GAA operators will have work with PA licensees, which under the proposed rules will probably be one of the Big Four, who will control the terms and prices of 5G service in the 3.5 GHz band.
Additional Proposed Rule Changes
The FCC also proposes to remove the rule that requires public disclosure of CBRS device registration. Due to the complex nature of service provision in the 3.5 GHz band, the FCC imposed strict rules on the authorization of base station and end-user CBRS equipment, including registration with the frequency coordinators by potential PA licensees. Due to concerns about confidentiality, the FCC ruled that the identities of the PA licensees registering their equipment be obfuscated. This rule benefits potential operators by giving them the opportunity to investigate the feasibility of deploying GAA or PA service before incurring the cost of obtaining spectrum. Moreover, this rule enables entities to hold frequency coordinators accountable for, among other things, ensuring that PA spectrum does not lie fallow.
The FCC also seeks to relax the current emissions and interference limits to allow for wider bandwidth, presumably to enable more powerful operations in the larger PA license areas.
Last Chance to Influence the 3.5 GHz Rules and Preserve Arguments for a Court Challenge
If the FCC adopts the proposals in the NPRM, the 3.5 GHz band will likely become the sole domain of the largest wireless carriers, and rural areas will continue to have substandard or nonexistent wireless broadband coverage. Moreover, since most small cells are carrier-specific, the larger carriers will have a lock on critical parts of the 5G infrastructure.
It is critical that all CBRS stakeholders such as small wireless carriers, WISPs, municipalities, rural providers, and equipment providers submit comments in this proceeding. If enough entities protest, the FCC may be persuaded to modify its proposed rules. Moreover, because some of the proposed changes may be legally suspect, it is entirely possible that this proceeding may end up in federal court. The only entities that will have standing to represent their interests in court are those that submit comments or otherwise participate in this proceeding before the FCC.
For further information, please contact Ronald E. Quirk, Head of The CommLaw Group's Internet of Things and Connected Devices Practice Group at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-714-1305.
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