The FCC Decides Rural America Has Too Many Broadband Options, So They Are Taking Away 5G Spectrum To Give To The Big Guys.

The FCC is about to take spectrum away from rural providers and we are making a last minute effort to stop it. Last week, my employer Public Knowledge sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asking him to change the draft Order altering the rules for the “Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service” (CBRS) to keep several of the old rules in place. Specifically, we want the FCC to keep at least some license areas at census tract size, rather than making them bigger and therefore unaffordable for small providers like wireless ISPs (WISPs). We also want the FCC to keep “use or share,” a rule that says that if the licensee is not using a piece of their license area it becomes open for general use on an unlicensed basis until the licensee actually starts using it. We’re also asking the FCC to leave the license terms at 3 years with no expectation it will be renewed (that is to say, it gets re-auctioned at the end of 3 years) rather than go to 10-year terms with an expectation of renewal. Finally, if the FCC is going to change the terms of the licenses as proposed, they need to have some meaningful build out obligations to ensure that rural areas get served.


I explain all this below, as well as linking to this nifty tool so you can contact your member of Congress and ask them to tell the FCC to leave rural America some useful spectrum so those who actually want to serve rural America can do so.

More below . . . .




In 2015, after a thorough process, the Federal Communications Commission established the “Citizens Broadband 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 agendaor 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.



Stay tuned . . .

One Comment

  1. I support the Public Knowledge position on 5G Spectrum.

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