FCC Adopts Innovative Spectrum Sharing Scheme, Making 150 MHz of Spectrum Available for Wireless Broadband  

By Stephen J. Matzura and Marty Stern

Earlier this week, the FCC released a Report and Order (R&O), adopting new innovative sharing rules for a 150 MHz swath of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band, including 100 MHz of federal government spectrum.  Under the regime adopted by the FCC, dubbed the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), much of the spectrum will be available for the provision of broadband services on an unlicensed “General Authorized Access” basis, though some of the spectrum will be set aside for short-term Priority Access Licenses (PALs) awarded via auction for individual census tracts.

The Commission will also allow opportunistic use of unused PAL channels by GAA users.  Federal government users, however, such as coastal radar installations, will be protected from GAA and PAL use in the limited geographic areas where they operate.  The CBRS also makes use of an innovative Spectrum Access System (SAS) database approach that, at a high level, registers the location of users subject to interference protection, determines available frequencies at a given location, and assigns them to Citizen Broadband Service Devices (CBSDs), while facilitating coordination among GAA users.

As expected, the R&O also incorporates the lightly licensed 3.65 – 3.7 GHz band into the new CBRS, which is used primarily today by providers of WiMAX and other fixed wireless broadband operations, as well as by utilities for smart grid, SCADA and related applications.  The FCC, however, adopted a variety of measures intended to grandfather and protect incumbent 3.65 GHz operations during a transition period, as well as to allow for the continued use of existing 3.65 GHz equipment.

The FCC also declined to prohibit the operation of LTE-Unlicensed/Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) in the CBRS, which use unlicensed channels for LTE together with bonded channels in licensed bands, rejecting concerns that use of LTE-U/LAA technologies could marginalize access for unlicensed devices.  So long as devices are operable band-wide and capable of two-way transmission, the FCC declined to require adherence to, or interoperability with, a particular transmission technology or air interface.  Still, as noted by Chairman Wheeler in his statement accompanying the R&O, the FCC plans to monitor the use of these technologies in the 3.5 GHz band, consider additional standards, and will release a public notice within 30 days soliciting public comment on these issues.

The FCC also issued a further notice of proposed rulemaking accompanying the R&O to solicit comments on additional issues, including, for example, when a PAL channel is in use for purposes of allowing opportunistic use by GAAs, protections for fixed satellite earth stations, and secondary market rules.

The new regime, based on a 2013 recommendation of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, has been widely praised, with FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel, for example, describing it as an historic “paradigm shift” that will spark new technologies and spur mobile broadband deployment.  Likewise, wireless broadband providers praised the new regime as using “novel regulatory tools” to “create an innovation band” for wireless broadband.

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