Proposed FCC Rules Could Threaten Local Broadband Competition

Joseph Sohm/

Rural areas, in particular, may continue to go unserved if small wireless internet providers get shut out of bidding wars for large license areas by the mobile industry.

Localities could see their internet options limited by proposed Federal Communications Commission rules that would increase priority access license areas and lengths for the 3.5 GHz “innovation” band.

In 2015, the FCC established a new framework for sharing the underutilized wireless spectrum, called the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, which created three tiers: incumbent access, priority access, and general authorized access.

Incumbents like naval radar, fixed-satellite service and wireless internet service providers previously operating in the band would be protected from harmful interference by other users. The rest would bid on PALs for service areas known as “census tracts,” the size of small cities or towns, or else try their luck in the unlicensed portion of the spectrum.

T-Mobile tried to convince the FCC to license the entire band earlier this year, and when that didn’t work petitioned for rule changes, along with CTIA - The Wireless Association, that would condense about 70,400 census tracts into about 400 partial economic areas.

“This is designed for urban areas; it is not designed for non-urban areas,” Richard Bernhardt, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association national spectrum adviser and Wireless Innovation Forum CBRS Operations chair, told Route Fifty by phone. “The system shouldn’t be rigged so it only provides for the large providers.”

WISPA predicts large providers like T-Mobile will outbid smaller ones for the most important PEAs, the value of which will skyrocket from a few thousand dollars to millions in some cases depending on the contents. Parts of New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut are contained in one enlarged PEA for instance, Bernhardt said, and no bidding credits have been offered to smaller entities.

If a WISP loses out on one of the seven 10 MHz slots that make up a PAL, they can still operate in one of eight GAA slots, but like the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands there’s more interference that makes executing commercial applications difficult. PAL spectrum that isn’t used is shared until a license holder chooses to exercise their priority.

Another rule change the FCC is considering would increase PAL terms from three years to 10 years with right of renewal for a second, 10-year stint and additional renewal unclear—a 20-year minimum hold on each PEA.

The cumulative effect is to further consolidate the mobile industry while providing localities, particularly those that don’t regulate internet providers, with less flexibility of choice, Bernhardt said, adding WISPA advocates for synergy between small, midsize and large providers.