Striking the balance between CBRS ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’

As we draw closer to the end of 2017 momentum is really building behind CBRS (did we mention we’re fans?). The announcement this month that the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) and the CBRS Alliance will collaborate on addressing technical challenges and business opportunities in the CBRS band is fantastic news for the standard. It seems clear that we can expect the first real world deployments to start in 2018.

However, there has been a cloud over CBRS for much of the year as questions have been raised over some of the fundamental details of the license structure of CBRS. This has centred on the Priority Access License, or PAL, that is primarily designed to be used by current telcos and wireless operators.

The debate has boiled down to two camps – the ‘hawks’ and the ‘doves’ – over three key issues: an extension of license terms, easier renewability and larger geographic coverage.

Now the FCC has stepped in by issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking that seeks to strike the balance between the hawks and the doves.

Most importantly the FCC has proposed increasing the PAL license term from three years to ten years and eliminating the requirement that PALs automatically terminate at the end. This is a sensible concession. The operators’ desire for longer lease terms and some reassurance over renewability seems entirely reasonable given their vested interest and the value they can bring to the standard.

While the desire for larger geographical license tracts also has its merits (there is potentially a huge number of licenses and the cost of administering the PAL auction could be huge), but it seems the FCC has slightly rowed back on this proposal. The notice calls only for comments discussion on this issue rather than proposing a specific change. While some streamlining via bigger license areas is possibly desirable, backing off from this demand probably helps sweeten the pill for the doves.

Crucially, the demands to extend the PAL license over the whole band, as T-Mobile had petitioned, seem to have been rejected. These demands were, in reality, a thinly-veiled plea to the FCC to bolster large operators’ position in licensed spectrum, to fence off the best spectrum, and to relegate entrepreneurial innovation in the GAA band to the stoniest of stony ground. This would have effectively eviscerated the whole CBRS concept, and it is hugely positive that this outcome seems to have been avoided.

Ultimately then it appears that the correct conclusion has been reached. While the CBRS ecosystem is lining up to make the most of the GAA opportunity, and the incumbents are expressing their reservations, the FCC looks like it’s making the right compromises for success.

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