FCC sets rules for CBRS PALs auction

PALs auction will offer up 22,631 county-level licenses

On the heels of a millimeter wave auction which featured the largest amount of spectrum ever put forth for auction in the U.S., the next Federal Communications Commission auction is chasing a different superlative: the most licenses offered in a single auction.

There weren’t many surprises in the details, but the Federal Communications Commission has officially set forth the rules by which companies must play in order to bid on the 22,631 available Priority Access Licenses in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum at 3.5 GHz. That figure breaks down to up to seven PALs per county-based license area.

The upcoming PAL auction, also known as Auction 105, “will offer the greatest number of spectrum licenses ever made available for bidding in a single auction,” the FCC said, and it is intended to bolster 5G deployments as well as the internet of things and “other advanced spectrum-based services.”

Each PAL will consist of a 10 megahertz unpaired channel at 3.55-3.65 GHz. Companies can bid on up to four PALs per license area and aggregate those. It will be conducted, similar to other recent auctions, in an ascending clock auction format in which bidders bid on generic spectrum blocks in specific counties, with prices automatically increasing each round until demand meets supply.

The auction represents the first major mid-band spectrum auction for 5G services in the U.S.—and as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai pointed out, 5G wasn’t really a considering factor when the three-tiered CBRS spectrum-sharing framework was first devised.

“It’s an impressive testament to the speed of technological development in the wireless sector that 5G was barely on the radar when the Commission began re-imagining the way we use this band. But now, because the FCC made necessary mid-course corrections to reflect changes in the marketplace, the 3.5 GHz auction will help make this band a primary avenue for deploying 5G services,” Pai said.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly—who has played point on helping to bring mid-band spectrum to the table and ironing out issues ahead of the PALs auction—called out three important facets of the adopted rules. First, he noted that the commission opted not to pursue the possibility of Cellular Market Area-based bidding packages, which would have made for larger geographic areas that would have been more attractive to large wireless network operators and less appealing for potential smaller scale players, such as industrial IoT use.

Secondly, while it’s not specifically mentioned in the public notice for the auction, O’Rielly added that the FCC “gained a commitment from the Department of Defense (DoD) that there would likely be no new DoD sites needing protection.

“This has become an issue over the last many months as previously unaccounted for sites were suddenly being ‘located’ and now needed to be protected by the ESCs and SASs,” O’Rielly went on. “Since the goal posts kept moving, it became difficult to establish a foundation for purposes of determining the utility and value of the nonfederal spectrum. With this new understanding, unless something drastic changes, this process should be completed. And, that is a good development.”

Thirdly, O’Rielly said, there remains work to be done in the CBRS band, primarily in the area of power constraints for network equipment operating under PALs and General Authorized Access (GAA).

“Everyone involved in CBRS—including DoD—is mindful that the power limit restrictions on PALs and General Authorized Access are woefully inadequate, especially in rural America,” O’Rielly said, adding that potential bidders who would like to use CBRS to provide fixed wireless access broadband in rural areas need higher power limits in order to do so. the Department of Defense has already agreed to look at that, he said, but the FCC needs to put a process in place to review that as well as whether the coastal “dynamic protection areas” could be reduced in size.

In addition, he said that the FCC and DoD have worked out a reimbursement plan for DoD to conduct for research and testing to explore higher power limits, and that the funding should be in place by the end of the year for that, with a process that “should be able to be completed by the end of next year, if not sooner. I will continue to push on this matter and to get this finalized as soon as possible.

“We also may need to consider how to mitigate harmful interference between future C-Band licensees and CBRS users,” he added.

 

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