By a unanimous vote praised by wireless carriers and advocates of unlicensed Wi-Fi, the FCC adopted a Report and Order (R&O) last Friday allocating 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band for a new Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) that will share designated channels with incumbent federal users.  Hailed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler as “a watershed in furthering a cooperative environment between the FCC and our federal counterparts,” the R&O caps months of joint negotiations among the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Defense. 

A press release issued by the FCC on the heels of Friday’s vote notes that the R&O “adopts innovative spectrum sharing techniques” in the 3550-3700 MHz band that “will allow wireless broadband systems to share spectrum with military radars and other incumbent systems, while protecting important federal missions.”  NTIA Director Larry Strickling described the R&O as “an important step toward meeting President Obama’s goal of making 500 megahertz of spectrum available for mobile broadband by 2020.”  Strickling explained that the FCC’s action “grew out of NTIA’s October 2010 ‘fast track’ evaluation report that identified the 3.5 GHz band as an important band to explore to help meet the 500 MHz commitment.” 

Specifically, the R&O establishes a spectrum sharing framework that encompasses two CBRS categories – general authorized access (GAA) users and priority access licensees (PALs)—that will share the 3550-3700 MHz band with a third tier of protected incumbents that include military radar systems and commercial fixed satellite service (FSS) earth stations.  The R&O allocates the 3550-3650 MHz band to PALs, which would bid through spectrum auctions for rights to 10 MHz channels serving a single Census tract.  Each Census tract would accommodate up to seven PALs, each of which would hold its respective licenses for a three-year term and for no more than two consecutive terms.  Unlicensed users of certified Wi-Fi-enabled devices will operate on a GAA basis on an 80 MHz block of channels reserved for their use and on any unused channel allocated to PALs.  Sharing among GAA users, PALs and incumbent users will be governed by one or more Spectrum Access Systems, which, according to the FCC, will be “operated by private commercial entities.”  In a further rulemaking notice accompanying the R&O, the FCC is soliciting input on additional issues that include secondary market rules and criteria for defining PAL usage at a particular location that would assist GAA users in determining whether PAL spectrum can be used opportunistically.