The FCC’s Auction 105 for the “experimental” Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band ended late last month, netting the U.S. Treasury $4,543,232,339. A total of 228 bidders won 20,625 of the available 22,631 licenses. Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) members figured prominently in the auction – an important first for companies that have traditionally served communities through unlicensed spectrum – with almost 70 WISPA members placing winning bids for more than 3,600 licenses at auction.
WISPA President/CEO Claude Aiken believes the success of Auction 105 holds some important lessons for the fixed wireless broadband marketplace and the consumers it serves; he says these include:
- “Size matters. Smaller geographic license areas, such as county-sized Priority Access Licenses (PALs) instead of Partial Economic Areas (PEAs), brought our members to the table, many of whom have never bid before in an auction for spectrum; and many of whom have 1,000 or fewer subscribers. The success of the auction challenges the notion that large geographic license areas – such as a PEA – are the only efficient way to successfully auction-off limited spectrum. The experiment with small licenses works; it beat expectations.
- Competition matters. More competition for spectrum licenses means more money for the U.S. Treasury. The CBRS auction design brought over 271 applicants, as well as a tremendously diverse group of players to the table, too – resulting in innovation and competition in a marketplace dominated by incumbents. The FCC should work to include licenses that can better accommodate small innovators in all its future auctions.
- Consumers win. More usable spectrum means more consumer benefits.
- The auction solidifies the “wireless play” as a model for broadband deployment. Even the electric coops and telephone coops, which are advocating for fiber-only funding, are buying wireless licenses for mobile or fixed wireless plays. On the whole, the activity further buttresses WISPA’s long-held advocacy that it takes all the tools in the broadband toolkit to successfully connect Americans to broadband infrastructure. Adhering to a one-size fits all solution is needlessly limiting, counterproductive and simply not borne out in the marketplace.
- The CBRS model of spectrum sharing – with some form of Spectrum Access System (SAS) or Automated Frequency Controller (AFC) – is not going away. Though market participants must share spectrum subject to frequency coordination, the strength of the bids, aided in no small measure by a meticulously devised frequency coordination system, reveals great confidence (from the very largest companies in America to the very smallest) that the system works. With little or no “greenfield,” mid-band spectrum available, the CBRS auction model proves new spectrum can be “found” and then better used via a more diverse range of actors than previously allowed.
- Rural areas win. Instead of the action focused on the metro areas, 91 percent of all licenses sold, revealing that significant interest and investment went to the rural areas of America, too. Close to 70 WISPA members – small companies which generally serve hard to reach rural communities – placed winning bids for over 3,600 licenses in more than 1,350 counties, representing more than 17 percent of all the licenses won. They spent $100.4 million in Auction 105, an unprecedented amount when considering the fixed wireless industry’s historical reliance on Part 15 unlicensed spectrum to serve its customers.
- The spectrum for which WISPs placed winning bids will be rapidly put to use serving rural communities in the digital divide. Combined with access to 80 MHz of GAA spectrum, not only will it make current services better, it will work to open up new high-speed services for areas that did not have them before.
- WISPs are maturing and evolving, growing through reduced regulation, better access to capital, and aggressive market entry. Where good infrastructure such as the CBRS spectrum is available, WISPs have shown tremendous adeptness to take advantage of those opportunities and serve areas that legacy providers ignore or deem too unprofitable to their bottom line.
- WISPs and the communities they serve are not waiting for Big Mobile to deploy 5G. They’re using the right tool for the right job – now – to grow broadband where it’s needed and desired. Good fixed wireless spectrum, such as CBRS, is essential infrastructure for that growth. Policymakers would do well to identify and free-up more such spectrum for those like WISPA members who are working to reduce the digital divide.
- The aggregate $4.5 billion investment in the 70 MHz of the licensed portion of the CBRS band will help grow the General Authorized Access spectrum, too, inviting the ecosystem to build the solutions needed to make the entire 150 MHz of the CBRS band useable for licensed and license-by-rule players. This success should encourage the FCC to allocate the neighboring 3.45 – 3.55 GHz with a similar sharing model and auction process.”