If FCC changes rules, rural fixed wireless service providers say they would be priced out of CBRS spectrum
Only on the job for a month, and already Claude Aiken is playing David to mobile carriers’ Goliath. Aiken, who became the president and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association last month, is now leading his organization’s fight against proposed changes to some Federal Communications Commssion policies that many WISPA members — rural, small businesses — fear could put them out of business.
“I have been on the job about a month and have been thrown into this CBRS policy fight. Just dived right in,” Aiken told RCR Wireless News.
“I am hearing from a lot of members who feel this really is make or break for them in terms of their ability to provide service and to actually grow, but even more basic, to continue to provide service,” Aiken went on.
WISPA’s 800-some membership is mostly made of up rural WISPs, many of whom provide broadband services in remote areas that larger providers have skipped over. With operators in all fifty U.S. states, each WISP serves an average of only about 1,200 subscribers. Many of the WISPs got their start when they saw both a need for a service and an opportunity.
“A lot of our members are bootstrapped companies: Folks who have seen the need and been frustrated by a lack of broadband in their area, have maxed out their credit cards, put up a couple of towers and started serving people with broadband,” said Aiken.
“We started out of community need,” said Chuck Hogg, who runs a WISP called Shelby Broadband based in Kentucky. He described how he got his start in a video. “There was an article in the paper that basically said that between these two cities that had DSL and cable, nobody was able to get high-speed Internet service. …. We were able to get this connection going between us and a silo, from a farmer.” They offered the farmer high speed internet for free if they could use his silo, a good deal for the farmer with dial-up. The demand for their service grew from there. “We had something in high demand and there was no supply from anyone else, so we had a business,” Hogg said.
Now those WISPs may be in the fight for their lives. At the center of the fight are issues around the size and cost of spectrum licenses, in the form of priority access licenses (PALs) in the 3.5 GHz band known as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service.
WISPA says members will be locked out of CBRS spectrum
“Our members have predominately used unlicensed spectrum in order to provide service in these areas. As you can imagine, over time that spectrum has become more noisy, and there are limitations on what you can do with unlicensed spectrum if you have to accept interference from others who use that spectrum,” Aiken explained. “We have members now who are at capacity in terms of who they can serve. Having access to licensed spectrum means they can serve those areas where there is pent-up demand for service, but they simply don’t have the spectrum to serve folks who are calling them asking for service.”
So, WISPs need to access to spectrum. Under Part 90 of current FCC rules on the CBRS spectrum, WISPs have such access, and they have been investing in preparation for expansion potential under the CBRS tiered access framework rules, or Part 96. A range of service providers and infrastructure vendors have already been developing Part 96-ready commercial deployments and RF equipment, anticipating that a variety of companies will be able to obtain priority access licenses in a CBRS auction. CBRS is designed as a three-tiered spectrum sharing system, and PALs are one of three CBRS license tiers established in 2015 that allow the license holder — as the name implies — priority, or protected, access. (The CBRS tiers also include unlicensed access.)
However, the FCC under President Trump and Chairman Ajit Pai proposed a reconsideration of its rules for CBRS in October 2017, based on some requests from cellular industry players — notably, June 2017 requests from CTIA and T-Mobile US. While the tiered access framework would remain, the terms of the PALs might change.
“A number of commenters maintain that the current PALs paradigm generally does not incentivize investment,” says the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. “…[T]hey argue that the current combination of short license terms, small license areas, and lack of renewability will diminish interest in the band.”
Last month, the Competitive Carriers Association and CTIA proposed a rule change to the FCC that would provide a mix of licenses based on much larger Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the top 306 cellular markets, and county-based areas in the remaining, smallest 428 Cellular Market Areas. WISPA says that some of the MSAs would include areas currently served by WISPs, and the combination of larger license areas and longer terms would put many WISPs out of the running for being able to purchase PALs and serve them.
“Those changes would include extending licensing terms significantly from three years to ten, adding an undefined rule expectancy and then expanding the geographic scope of the licenses to much larger areas, which would lump rural areas in with cities,” said Aiken. WISPs, which tend to serve very small areas, don’t want to see this happen; Aiken compared the change to forcing a mall vendor to rent out the whole mall and instead of just one kiosk.
“There are operators who have made investments in this band in reliance on the last set of rules that the FCC adopted, and … those investments would be effectively stranded if they can’t effectively use the band with the new set of rules the FCC adopts,” said Aiken.
He argues that proposed changes would preclude a lot of WISPA members from participating in the auction and would limit participation to the largest, richest bidders. “[WISPs] are not the same sort of folks who are going to go to a giant bank for a multi-billion dollar loan to purchase spectrum,” added Aiken.
WISPA wants the old rules to stay in force. WISPA recently issued a statement objecting to CCA/CTIA’s proposal and sought to poke holes in what it called AT&T’s and T-Mobile US’ “erroneous and misleading” technical analyses submitted in the CBRS proceeding. “If CBRS is to remain a viable new tool in the spectrum tool kit to support a wide variety of use cases and deployments, it is critical that the FCC retain census-tract-sized Priority Access Licenses,” says the WISPA statement.
Aiken explained WISPA’s position:
“Our position, while we liked the old rule, [is that] this really is a make or break moment for rural America. The rule as it currently stands makes it possible to take this underutilized band and enable providers who are already out there working to close the digital divide, [to] do a better job of it. Cost-effective deployments in this band can be made in months with private capital, even in small markets. But if significantly changed along the lines of what has been proposed, the changes would effectively strain investments made in reliance on the current rules, and as I mentioned previously, would foreclose actions by anyone other than the large carriers that operate over large areas but generally avoid rural areas.”
WISPA isn’t the only group asking the FCC to keep the old terms in place. In a filing last week, companies and organizations including Google, GE, Motorola, Union Pacific, SouthernLinc, the Port of Los Angeles and others put together a joint letter that also criticized AT&T and T-Mobile US’ technical arguments on the difficulties of designing networks to cover small areas while limiting interference. The allies urged the FCC “not to favor large carriers that seek to ‘engineer for coverage’ but rather promote spectrally efficient and innovative new uses of CBRS spectrum with balanced PAL licensing rules.”
The real problem, they said, isn’t that census tracts are too-small licensing areas — it’s that larger licenses are too big for most companies outside of mobile operators to serve.
“Path loss and propagation characteristics of the 3.5 GHz band are better suited for geographically targeted small-cell coverage, including IoT connectivity within an industrial facility, capacity enhancement in areas such as stadiums where usage is especially high, or private LTE services … ,” the group said in its filing. “Large license areas would prevent meaningful, if any, participation in the PAL spectrum auctions by forcing users to bid on areas far larger than their intended, targeted service areas.”
Talking it up
Aiken, who is based in Washington, D.C., understands the inner workings of FCC. He served for 10 years on the FCC as assistant to former Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, prior to becoming the CEO of WISPA.
“We are talking to anyone who is willing to listen. We believe that Commissioner O’Reilly, who has taken the lead on this, gets it. I think he understands what our members need in order to provide robust service in these rural areas. We are hopeful that whatever his recommendations are on this issue we will be included.” Aiken also felt Commissioner Rosenworcel was a voice for smaller licensers, as was his former boss, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn — who recently announced the end of her time at the FCC and that last month’s meeting was her final one as a commissioner.
On May 1, WISPA put up a call for grassroots action. Aiken says on the page: “While I’m not at liberty to disclose the details, I can tell you the mobile wireless industry continues to oppose census-tract PALs, even in rural areas.”
The arguments over reconsideration of CBRS licensing have been going on since last year, but Aiken said that he expects the FCC to take action on the reconsideration proposal this year.