Post Spectrum Reform

The FCC is Preparing to Take Yet Another Hit at Rural America, but It’s Not Too Late to Stop It

October 11, 2018 , , , ,

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The FCC is about to take spectrum away from rural providers and we are making a last minute effort to stop it. Today we sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, and we are calling on you to contact Congress. Here’s why:


In 2015, after a thorough process, the Federal Communications Commission established the “Citizens Band Radio Service” (CBRS) for the 3.5 GHz band. One of the features included interference protection (also known as exclusive licenses) available in a different way. (You can read the FCC 2015 Order here.)

Historically, the FCC auctions large license areas that include both more densely populated urban areas and more sparsely populated rural areas. That drives up the price of licenses beyond where any small providers can afford, because companies like AT&T and T-Mobile buy up the licenses to serve the urban areas, and then ignore the rural areas. Worse, because the licenses are effectively awarded forever (usually 10 years with an expectation of renewal), any entity who didn't win one at the time of the auction was permanently shut out.

Recognizing this was problematic to rural broadband access, the FCC adopted the CBRS rules in 2015 that (a) limited licenses to census tracts — which are smaller than any other license geographically — and (b) required an auction every three years, rather than an expectation of renewal.

Small providers in rural areas, such as wireless ISPs (WISPs), loved this. People who wanted targeted small networks, like the Port Authority for Los Angeles, loved it, because it let them get smaller licenses. People who wanted internet of things (IoT) networks loved it,  because of the possibilities for innovation. Who didn't love it?

1. Big wireless carriers.

2. Medium wireless carriers wanting to be big carriers.

3. Big cable companies wanting to become wireless carriers.

What Went Wrong?

In 2017, when Ajit Pai took over as Chairman of the FCC, CTIA (the wireless trade association) filed a petition for rulemaking to change the rules to make these “priority access licenses” like every other license, i.e. standard big-sized license areas and an expectation of renewal. Everybody hated this idea except for:

1. Big wireless carriers.

2. Medium wireless carriers wanting to be bigger carriers.

3. Big cable companies wanting to become wireless carriers.

After fighting for a year, the FCC has settled on a “compromise” that expands the license size from census tracts to counties (still way too expensive for local providers trying to serve rural communities, because they include both urban and rural areas), creates an expectation of renewal (no reauction every 3 years), and eliminates any build-out requirements to rural (called “performance requirements” rather than “build-out requirements” in the draft Order). Unsurprisingly, the only people happy with this “compromise” are:

1. Big wireless carriers.

2. Medium wireless carriers wanting to be bigger carriers.

3. Big cable companies wanting to become wireless carriers.

What Can We Do to Fix Things?

The FCC plans to vote to change the rules on CBRS on October 23. Because rural broadband is a major election issue, we believe that a strong enough show of opposition to the new rules/”compromise” will get the FCC to pull the Order off the October 23 Open Meeting agenda or modify it to make it less bad for rural America and Tribal lands. This is why we sent the FCC a letter today.

But that’s not all: we will also continue to press this issue with members of Congress, who should ask the FCC to pull the item or fix it in accordance with the proposal in the letter. We are calling on you to email your members of Congress here to tell them the FCC is going to take valuable wireless capacity away from rural communities unless someone in Congress makes them stop. While you’re at it, remind them that there is an election next month, and their stance on the rural digital divide matters to you as a voter.


About Harold Feld

Harold Feld is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President and author of “The Case for the Digital Platform Act,” (Public Knowledge & Roosevelt Institute 2019) a guide on what government can do to preserve competition and empower individual users in the huge swath of our economy now referred to as “Big Tech.” Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described this book as, “[...] a tour de force of the issues raised by the digital economy and internet capitalism.” For more than 20 years, Feld has practiced law at the intersection of technology, broadband, and media policy in both the private sector and in the public interest community. Feld has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from Boston University, and clerked for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Feld also writes “Tales of the Sausage Factory,” a progressive blog on media and telecom policy. In 2007, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin praised him and his blog for “[doing] a lot of great work helping people understand how FCC decisions affect people and communities on the ground.”