Speakers at the Competitive Carriers Association annual conference, held this week in Fort Worth, Texas, were tepid in their response to the FCC’s proposed changes to Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in the 3.5 GHz band Citizens Broadband Radio Service regarding longer license terms, renewability, larger geographic license areas and auction methodology.
The breakfast session — titled “Where Will the Extra Network Capacity Come From?” – looked at the reasons wireless networks are constrained and capacity solutions such as additional spectrum, small cells, cell splitting and multiple in multiple out (MIMO) antennas.
The commission said the service rule changes are being considered because they are necessary for the United States to maintain its leadership in the global race for 5G.
“We must ensure that the service rules governing bands that are critical for 5G network deployments — including the 3.5 GHz band — keep up with technological advancements, create incentives for investment, encourage efficient spectrum use, support a variety of different use cases, and promote robust network deployments in both urban and rural communities,” the commission wrote.
Paul Challoner, VP network product solutions for Ericsson, added a note of urgency saying the United States is at risk at falling behind the world in allocating mid-band spectrum for 5G. He noted China has launched 5G field trials in the 3.5 GHz band and mid-band spectrum has been allocated in Europe.
“We as an industry have to create 3.5 GHz as a band where we can deliver 5G services throughout the United States,” Challoner said. “That’s really important. If you look at the United States, I think we have fallen behind in terms of the allocation of mid band spectrum for 5G. We, with the help of the FCC, need to get it straightened out and CBRS is a part of that.”
Proposed 3.5 GHz Changes Might Favor Larger Carriers
Originally, the FCC established a three-year license term for PALs, which would terminate automatically and might not be renewed. The proposed rules increase the PAL license term from three years to ten years and eliminate the requirement that PALs automatically terminate at the end of the license term.
“If we are going to put capital into the network, we need the certainty that it is not gone within three years,” said Craig Sparks, VP technology strategy and planning of C Spire. “Who wants to put that up just to have it pulled away?”
But members of the panel were wary of the possibility that the new rules might allow spectrum warehousing by tier-one carriers.
“We can’t have a tier-one carrier come in, and put up one site in the corner of the PEA [partial economic area] against the density and let the rest go fallow for the next 10 years,” Sparks said. “We really need an aggressive mechanism by which carriers have to use-it or lose-it or sub-license it out.”
The FCC originally defined the geographic license area for each PAL as one census tract, but the commission asked for opinions on a wide variety of alternatives, from partial economic areas to a county by county approach.
“Would counties, or a combination of PAL license areas (e.g., a hybrid combination of PEAs in urban areas and census tracts in rural areas, offering PALs of different sizes, such as PEAs and census tracts, or some other combination) ensure a diversity of auction participants, differing technologies, and rural deployments?” the FCC asked.
Nathan Sutton of Next Tech Wireless favored geographic areas on the smaller side for the CBRS auction.
“PEAs were good for the 600 MHz auction. I am not sure they would be good for CBRS because of the propagation characteristics and how tightly the spectrum will be controlled and monitored. A smaller bloc would be advisable,” he said.
Another issue of concern to smaller carriers is the size of the licenses in terms of spectrum. Currently the FCC limits the amount of spectrum a carrier can aggregate to 40 megahertz. But it is looking for guidance on whether to increase or decrease that number. Sutton said the spectrum size of a license can be a deal breaker for rural and regional carriers.
“The FCC needs to get this right. We can’t have another auction where a lot of capital goes out to get this spectrum,” Sutton said. “You set yourself up for the propensity for the big carriers to buy all of the spectrum and the small carriers get left out in the cold.”
Sparks agreed that the public good would be served in the CBRS through a balanced licensing approach.
“Whether an individual carrier in a market environment takes all the spectrum they can in an auction or a well-balanced model is used that lets companies come in through a lightly licensed approach, that is the heart of the debate of how CBRS at 3.5 GHz will work,” he said.
Challoner described the use cases that the OEM is seeing for the CBRS, including wireless traffic offload, fixed wireless access and private LTE.
“There are a number of use cases and we see the ecosystem shaping nicely as well,” Challoner said. “For the first time, with private LTE networks, we have shared spectrum and are not depending on a carrier’s licensed spectrum to cover an indoor venue, which can create neutral host networks.”