The Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) has not even been born yet, but already major industry players want to change its basic character. CBRS, as its name implies, was conceived and approved by the FCC a couple of years ago as a broadband service for locally-focused businesses. The regulatory paradigm included both a large swathe of generally authorized access (also termed “licensed by rule”) channels that would be made available opportunistically to any entity and licensed channels made available on a census-tract basis for generally non-renewable three year terms. This generated quite a bit of opposition from larger carriers who insisted that the small license areas and short, non-renewable terms would make the band unsuitable for significant investment. Yet the FCC stuck to its vision for this “citizen”-oriented service and adopted rules which are now effective, though users cannot be up and operating until the spectrum managers begin administering access to the spectrum. (Details on how the spectrum access databases (SAS) will work can be found here.)
T-Mobile and CTIA have now asked the FCC to re-open the rules to change the regulatory character of the service significantly. The petitions ask that: (1) the Commission convert the license terms to 10 years, (2) the licenses be renewable at the end of the term, (3) all of the CBRS spectrum be made available for licensed use, and (4) the licenses cover Partial Economic Areas (PEAs), which are much broader than the small census-tract license areas now in place. Certain technical changes are requested as well. The proposals appear to have support from Commissioner O’Rielly, who is spearheading the FCC’s review of this service. It is also noteworthy that the FCC got the proposals out for public comment at warp speed – only a few days after the petitions were filed.
There is no doubt that the measures proposed by CTIA and T-Mobile will encourage additional investment in this spectrum by big players who can afford to buy large chunks of spectrum covering major metropolitan areas and millions of people; a single license term of short duration is a deterrent to potential investors. But there is also no doubt that the proposed changes could alter the fundamental character of the service from a local service with open access to 50 MHz of spectrum on a generally authorized access basis to a more traditional licensed service that serves only the neighborhoods or towns where the provider intends to offer service. Changing this paradigm may make CBRS just another asset in the spectrum portfolios of the major carriers.
The open proceeding will determine whether the quirky but perhaps impractical vision of CBRS survives. Comments are due by July 24, with Reply Comments due August 8, in Docket No. 12-354.