TMT Law Watch

FCC Proposes New Broadband Spectrum for Small Cell, Shared Use

By J. Bradford Currier, Marc Martin, and Marty Stern

New spectrum may become available for shared, small cell broadband use in a new a “Citizens Broadband Service” under a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking recently released by the Federal Communication Commission. The proposal would reallocate 100 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz Band for shared use using small cell technologies and implements recommendations made earlier this year by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The FCC stated that increased spectrum sharing is necessary as demand for wireless broadband outpaces the availability of new spectrum. The FCC seeks comment on the structure and implementation of the Citizens Broadband Service and whether adjacent spectrum should be included in the proposal to create a larger contiguous spectrum block.

The proposed rules would authorize small cell broadband systems using low-power wireless base stations that are designed to cover targeted indoor or localized outdoor areas, such as homes, stadiums, shopping malls, and hospitals. The FCC noted that small cell stations can be easily deployed at relatively low cost to greatly increase data capacity and fill in coverage gaps created by buildings and terrain. Building on the TV White Spaces model, incumbent users would be protected through the use of geolocational databases that would allow spectrum sharing in geographic areas where incumbent systems are not operating.

The FCC’s proposal would divide spectrum users into three tiers. First, the Incumbent Access tier would include authorized federal users and incumbent satellite licensees. These incumbents would be afforded protection from all other users in the 3.5 GHz Band. Second, the Protected Access tier would include critical-use facilities, such as hospitals, utilities, government facilities, and public safety entities that would be ensured access to a portion of the spectrum in certain designated locations. Third, the General Authorized Access tier would include all other users, including consumer and business users, wireless ISPs, and licensed commercial wireless providers, all of whom would operate in the 3.5 GHz Band subject to protections for the other tiers. The FCC seeks comment on a number of issues, including whether the General Access Tier should be subject to a light licensing regime similar to a registration requirement, potential interference mitigation techniques, and details on the geolocational database and how it will regulate access to the band.

Wireless broadband providers praised the FCC’s proposal, stating that spectrum sharing will enable increased coverage in rural and underserved areas and provide start-up companies with a testing ground for new technologies. Supporters of unlicensed spectrum use suggest that available interference mitigation techniques will ensure that incumbent users and critical care facilities can be protected, while opening up additional spectrum for commercial and public use. However, in reports earlier this Fall on opening up the 3.5 GHz band to unlicensed use, industry observers noted that spectrum sharing in the 3.5 GHz Band poses a number of technical challenges for commercial wireless providers that may take years to resolve before the spectrum can be deployed as an adjunct to their core wireless services.

Comments on the proposal are due by February 20, 2012, with reply comments due by March 22, 2013.

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