FCC 3.5 GHz Band License Changes Will Make Closing the Rural Digital Divide More Difficult

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Today, the Federal Communications Commission voted to approve a Report and Order to make changes to its Priority Access Licenses in the 3.5 GHz Band (3550-3700 MHz). Today’s action needlessly rolls back a unanimous 5-0 Commission vote from April 2015 and is counterproductive to helping the agency achieve its stated goal of closing the rural digital divide.  

Public Knowledge recently joined 20 rural advocacy organizations, rural healthcare providers, rural network operators, and public interest advocates in a letter urging FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to preserve the existing Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) rules that enable small providers to offer service in rural areas.

The following can be attributed to Phillip Berenbroick, Senior Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge:

“The FCC’s vote to upend its CBRS spectrum license rules takes spectrum that was earmarked to accommodate a wide variety of users, deployment models, and use cases and instead changes the rules and re-allocates the 3.5 GHz band solely to benefit the deployment models of large wireless carriers and cable companies. As a result, rules that were intended to help small, rural broadband providers acquire spectrum to serve their communities and close the digital divide have been replaced with licensing rules that have repeatedly failed to provide rural America with real, reliable, and affordable broadband access.

“The Commission’s build-out requirements for the CBRS licenses will not promote deployment to rural communities. Instead, large wireless carriers and cable operators are more likely to acquire these licenses and serve densely populated cities and towns to comply with the license performance requirements, while leaving outerlying, more sparsely populated areas without any service. As a result, the Commission’s rule changes are likely to widen, rather than narrow, the digital divide.

“Changes to the CBRS license rules have been explained as critical for speedy deployment of next-generation 5G networks. In reality, today’s vote will likely lead to additional challenges to the 3.5 GHz rules, further delaying any auction of the PALs and delaying, rather than speeding, licensed use of the CBRS spectrum. Undoubtedly, the FCC’s changes significantly reduce the likelihood that these frequencies are ever used to serve rural communities -- for any generation of wireless service, let alone 5G.

“Today’s vote is another unfortunate chapter in the Commission’s destructive legacy under current leadership. The current FCC has been defined by its haste to enact the agenda of the largest companies it oversees, to the detriment of consumers, competition, affordable access, network security and reiliancy, and the Chairman’s oft-stated goal of closing the digital divide.”

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