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T-Mobile to FCC: “Let’s License the Entire 3.5 GHz Band!”

In a last-minute attempt to eviscerate the core purpose of the rules governing the 3550-3700 MHz spectrum band (“3.5 GHz” band), T-Mobile USA, Inc. (“T-Mobile”) recently filed a Petition for Rulemaking(“Petition”), proposing that the FCC license the entire spectrum band and grant other favors to large wireless carriers.  If adopted, T-Mobile’s proposal would virtually eliminate unlicensed use of the spectrum, thereby substantially raising the barrier to entry for businesses seeking to utilize the 3.5 GHz band, which is critical to the growth of 5G wireless broadband in the U.S.  The FCC is soliciting public comment on T-Mobile’s Petition. Comments and reply comments are due by July 24, 2017 and August 8, 2017 respectively.

Current 3.5 GHz Rules

The current rules allow for commercial shared use of the 3.5 GHz band via licensed and unlicensed allocation, intended to pave the way for broadband providers, large and small, to implement new and innovative wireless broadband services.  Unlicensed operators will have access to many frequencies without having to incur the expense of bidding on spectrum.  Licensed operators will be subject to spectrum auctions, but with very small geographic service areas, the per-license costs should be much less than licenses issued in other spectrum auctions.

The rules have created a commercial radio service called Citizens Broadband Radio Service (“CBRS”).  It is anticipated that CBRS will, among other things, advance small cell technology, which mobile broadband operators can use to efficiently extend their service coverage and increase network capacity. The FCC enables spectrum sharing in the 3.5 GHz Band by means of a three-tiered sharing system.  Tier 1 consists of incumbent federal users (radiolocation and aeronautical radio navigation) and non-federal fixed satellite service (“FSS”) operators.  Tier 2 is for new “Priority Access” operators, whose licenses (“PALs”) will be allocated by auction.  Tier 3 is reserved for General Authorized Access (“GAA”). GAA will be licensed “by rule,” meaning that any entity that qualifies as an FCC licensee may  use FCC-authorized telecommunications equipment in the GAA band without having to obtain an individual spectrum license.

T-Mobile’s Major Proposed Rule Changes

  • Auction all 150 MHz of the 3.5 GHz band as PALs, restricting unlicensed use of the band “when it is not in use by PAL licensees.”
  • Eliminate the “seven PALs per license area” limitation.
  • Eliminate the three-year, non-renewable PAL term, replacing it with a ten-year license term with renewal expectancy.
  • Exponentially expand PAL license areas by eliminating the small census tract areas and replacing them with the much larger “Partial Economic Areas.”
  • Take away the little remaining unlicensed spectrum by eliminating the rule that (except in rural areas) when there is only one application for a PAL in a license area, no PAL will be assigned; the spectrum will remain accessible solely for shared GAA use.
  • Permit partitioning and disaggregation of PALs so that PA licensees can slice up their licenses any way they choose.

If T-Mobile’s proposals are adopted, the 3.5 GHz band will likely become the sole domain of the the largest wireless carriers.  Among other things, smaller carriers that intend to bid on PALs will find themselves priced out of the market, while businesses that intend to use the unlicensed 3.5 GHz frequencies will be out of luck.   Moreover, since most small cells are carrier-specific, the larger carriers will have a lock on critical parts of the 5G infrastructure.   Accordingly, it is critical that 5G stakeholders make their voices heard in this proceeding.

The CommLaw Group does not represent any of the “Big Four” wireless carriers and is therefore not conflicted.   We stand prepared to zealously advocate for denial of T-Mobile’s Petition on behalf of competitive providers and other beneficiaries of the current rules.

To learn more, please contact Ron Quirk, Head of The CommLaw Group’s Internet of Things Practice Group at req@commlawgroup.com, or 703-714-1305.

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