“Hallelujah!” says Commissioner Michael O’Rielly

The Federal Communications Commission has unanimously approved a proposal for rules governing the auction of Priority Access Licenses in the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service, with a proposed auction start date of June 25, 2020.

The CBRS band “holds the potential to be prime spectrum for 5G services,” the commission said, and it plans to “auction PALs to increase innovation and investment in this band.”

The PALS auction, Auction 105, will offer seven PALs in each county-based license area, for a total of 22,631 PALs nationwide; those PALs will consist of 10 megahertz, unpaired channels and licensees will be able to aggregate up to four PALs in any license area.

The FCC is asking for comment on a number of details of the auction rules, including using an ascending clock auction format similar to what has been used in this year’s millimeter wave spectrum auctions, as well as whether it should offer bidders the option to bid for the larger geographical Cellular Market Area licenses in areas — mostly cities — which include multiple counties and are classified as Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

“Hallelujah! With every passing day, CBRS is becoming more of a reality and now we have an auction date!” Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said. O’Rielly has made identifying and freeing up more mid-band spectrum for commercial use one of his primary areas of focus as an FCC commissioner.

He noted that CBRS spectrum is already available under General Authorized Access rules, which are similar to unlicensed use; and initial commercial deployments in the band have begun.

“Hopefully, in the near future, we can review and improve the protection zones, technical rules, and power limits to ensure that they are not larger or more protective than necessary. Such tweaks will make it easier for industry to provide services to the millions of Americans clamoring for more wireless services and devices,” he added.

In terms of the potential of allowing bids on larger market areas, O’Rielly said that “Some parties asked questions about and sought clarification on the CMA-level bidding concept, and I am comfortable with that. The truth is that allowing such bidding in only the largest markets doesn’t skew the outcome, favor any particular auction participants, or have any real impact on rural markets. It merely provides a bidding tool to ease participation for entities that seek larger geographic areas and was part of the balanced, negotiated agreement that resulted in county-sized licenses, rather than larger units.”

Democratic commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks expressed concern about whether allowing larger license areas in metropolitan areas might have “unintended consequences,” as Starks put it.

“Will county-level bidders be able to compete effectively with CMA-level bidders for blocks in counties within the same CMA as a large city? Notwithstanding limits on the number of blocks a CMA-level bidder can obtain in a single county, how likely is it that two CMA-level bidders could take up all 7 available PALs in all the counties within that CMA? To address these issues, should we limit the number of CMAs that are subject to CMA-level bidding? If so, what limits would we impose? I encourage commenters to share their views on these questions,” Starks said.

Rosenworcel categorized the evolution of auction rules for the CBRS band as having “retreated from this early and inspired vision for this band. … We lost our nerve and reverted back to the old” by increasing license sizes from census tracts to counties, and in the proposed move to allow large licenses in urban areas.

“I think that continuing down this road, narrowing the range of spectrum interests that could use these airwaves, would be a grave mistake. At a minimum, we must honor the hard-fought compromise that kept service areas in this band defined by counties. To do otherwise, would unacceptably risk the opportunities for innovation in this band and new entry points for 5G,” Rosenworcel said. Still, she supported moving the auction forward and added that if she had one wish, it would be to have the mid-band auction even sooner — before the scheduled auction later this year of more millimeter-wave spectrum, instead of in June of next year.

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