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Ron Quirk: FCC Again Proposes to Enlarge Service Areas for Wireless Public Access Licenses

Ronald Quirk

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently issued a Public Notice seeking comment on procedures for the auction of Public Access Licenses (PALs) in the 3550-3650 MHz (3.5 GHz) band. The auction is scheduled for June 25, 2020. Comments are due by October 28, 2019, and reply comments are due by November 12, 2019.

While the Public Notice indeed solicits comments on some bidding procedures, a major licensing issue is included therein. The FCC, at this late date, seeks to give bidders for PALs the “flexibility” to bid on large Cellular Market Area (CMAs), instead of bidding separately for the counties within the CMAs.

As those who have followed the history of the 3.5 GHz proceeding well know, in 2015 the FCC issued rules that set census tracts as PAL service areas. Census tracts, which generally align with the borders of political boundaries such as towns, cities, and small counties, would have offered WISPs and small wireless service providers the opportunity to bid on affordable licenses, many of which cover rural areas. That scenario was a win-win for the smaller players and rural America, which would have had access to affordable wireless broadband.

When Ajit Pai became Chairman in 2017, he called for a review of the 3.5 GHz rules. Chief among the new rules proposed was the enlarging of PAL service areas from census tracts to much larger Partial Economic Areas (“PEAs”). PEAs are approximately 178 times larger than census tracts. Based in part on comments it received, the FCC decided to compromise on the PAL service areas; settling on counties, instead of PEAs.

Now the FCC is attempting yet again to enlarge many of the PAL geographic areas, proposing that bidders can elect CMA-level bidding for the 172 CMAs that are classified as Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs); those that incorporate more than one county. As shown in Attachment A to the Public Notice, these MSAs typically encompass many counties, and bidding on MSA-based PAL licenses requires large upfront payments and unaffordable minimum opening bids.

From a small carrier’s viewpoint, counties are certainly preferable to CMAs; the FCC’s proposal to increase many PAL service areas will make it that much more difficult to successfully bid for PALs. Cable companies and large mobile network operators (MNOs) will be able to outbid smaller providers for the more profitable CMA-sized PALs. This plan would effectively limit participation in the licensed portion of the 3.5 GHz band to the largest carriers who are focused on deploying 5G in profitable urban areas. The inevitable result is that rural areas will remain underserved.

Consequently, it is critical that all interested broadband stakeholders, particularly those that serve rural areas, make their voices heard in this proceeding. There is strength in numbers. Tell the FCC that all PAL service areas must remain at the county level. There is no excuse for moving the goalposts on smaller carriers at this late stage in the game.

About the author:

Ronald E. Quirk is head of The CommLaw Group’s Internet of Things & Connected Devices practice group. Spanning more than 25 years, Mr. Quirk’s legal career includes several years at the Federal Communications Commission and AMLAW 100 firms. He specializes in helping Internet of Things, WISPs, and other service providers build and expand their businesses by assisting them in navigating the complex labyrinths of federal, state, local, and international legal and regulatory processes, including spectrum management, licensing, radio frequency equipment authorization, small cell and tower siting. Learn more about The CommLaw Group's upcoming presence at WISPAPALOOZA.

Originally published on LinkedIN and reposted with permission of the author.

BroadbandBreakfast.com accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@broadbandcensus.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com and Breakfast Media LLC.

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