EDITOR’S NOTE — This opinion piece was penned before yesterday’s announced delay of the CBRS PAL auction. Iain stands by his column.
On March 11th, iGR and The 2030 Project held one of the last conferences in Washington, D.C., before the country started to shut down – our CBRS PAL Auction Workshop. We had a good registration and strong attendance, including from a wide range of telcos and MNOs.
The agenda encouraged lively discussion (we had lots!), raised issues and generated answers, and invited new questions that the industry is currently unable to answer with regard to the PALs. Subjects covered included the auction process, how the SASes operate, how the SASes will support the PALs, the development of the secondary market and how the PALs could be subdivided to support the secondary market.
Over the next two weeks, we will put out several articles that highlight these discussions and the major takeaways. The closer we get to the PAL auction in June, the more relevant these discussions will become.
But first, I think it is worth revisiting why the PAL Auction needs to go ahead, on time and without interruption. After all, it is easy today, on March 23rd, to assume that everything scheduled for the next few months will automatically be cancelled. But the reality is that many things do not need to be cancelled, delayed or rescheduled. In my opinion, the PAL Auction is one of those things. Here are 10 reasons why.
1. We need the spectrum – this is the easiest and perhaps the most obvious. For those working from home in the last week or two, it is now clear that our nation’s networks need some work. In short, we need better coverage and capacity, both for voice and data. This is not a new argument or request from those of us who have been working at home for a while, but now more of the working population is discovering the same thing. Some of the MNOs have been granted additional spectrum in the form of STAs from the FCC; others have partnered to make more spectrum available. The CBRS PAL Auction will make 70 MHz available across the U.S. in the form of priority access (the spectrum is already allocated for the General Access for CBRS) which can be used to supplement existing mobile networks or light up greenfield services.
2. CBRS is free and clear and usable now – unlike other spectrum bands that require incumbents to relocate or require ‘unpacking’, the CBRS spectrum is available (and being used) today. So why not just use this band for commercial LTE services? Simply because MNOs and other operators typically require some form of spectrum guarantee before investing capital in new equipment. For CBRS, this means Priority Access Licenses. Once the PAL auctions are completed, the spectrum will be available immediately. That means new PAL-based services could be online by August or September of this year.
3. CBRS equipment is available now – thanks to the efforts of the CBRS Alliance, there is an active CBRS ecosystem able to provide all of the network equipment and devices needed to launch a service.
4. CBRS supports a variety of uses and applications, including healthcare and manufacturing – CBRS in general supports a range of private LTE services and opportunities. PALs will enhance this capability by providing guarantees that the spectrum will be needed when required by the application. Given the current COVID-19 issues, the fact that CBRS PALs could support healthcare and manufacturing applications should make the granting of the PALs a top priority.
5. Enables an active secondary market – one of the most interesting aspects of the PAL auctions is that the FCC is encouraging an active secondary market. Basically (more on this in the next few weeks), the PALs can be subdivided and then made available to licensees or secondary users. So the success of the PALs is not dependent on someone building out an entire county; the license can be subdivided and then put to use in a smaller area.
6. Generates much needed revenue for the Federal Government – given the current plans for trillion-dollar stimulus packages, the U.S. Government needs every bit of revenue it can get its hands on.
7. Enables rural broadband buildout and fixed wireless – CBRS has a number of uses including for broadband fixed wireless services in rural markets; this has been proposed as a likely use for PALs by one of the MNOs. Again, going back to the fact that more people are working – and learning – from home, the gap between the broadband haves and have-nots has never been more clear. The PALs could quickly help to bridge that gap.
8. Potentially provides jobs – assuming the auction is successful and the PALs are quickly put to work, labor will be required for the installation of networks, both indoors and outside. Training programs are already available to certify CBRS equipment installers – and these are available online. At a time when many are losing their jobs, the CBRS PAL buildout could provide some relief.
9. Get this done and we can move onto the C-band auction – the C-band auction, which promises to free up 280 MHz of mid-band spectrum, is currently scheduled for late 2020. Due to some arcane rules, the FCC is only allowed to conduct one auction at a time. Thus, if the PAL auction is delayed or postponed, it may impact the C-band auction and cause a ripple effect into the future schedule. Get the PAL auction done and we can move forward, both with other auctions and with network buildout.
10. The PAL Auction is online – you can bid from home! I never anticipated this would be a benefit of an FCC spectrum auction, but the PAL auction is online. Given the current state of the world, this is a big benefit. Certainly there is a lot of planning that goes into a bidding strategy ahead of the auction, but this again can be done via online conference, webcast, etc. Potentially, you could bid for – and win – a PAL wearing your pajamas!