SAS Interoperability Achieved: A Giant Leap for 5G; Small, but Many Regulatory Steps Remain for CBRS Operators


December 2016 has been a watershed month for progress toward commercial use of the 3.5 GHz spectrum band.  On December 6, the Wireless Innovation Forum (“WIN”) announced member approval and public availability of its signaling protocol and procedures that will be used in the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (“CBRS”) band for Spectrum Access System (“SAS”) and Citizens Broadband Service Device (“CBSD”) interfaces.   Earlier in the month, Federated Wireless and Google parent company Alphabet demonstrated, for the first time, that two cloud systems can work together to accomplish SAS interoperability that validated the WIN protocol.    
Implementation of commercial use of the 3.5 GHz band is drawing closer.  The regulatory flexibility and low barrier to entry for service providers in this band provides tremendous opportunity for providers to expand their services and implement new services.  But, there are a number of regulatory matters of which any potential CBRS provider needs to be aware while planning its operations.
SAS Interoperability is a Key 5G Development 
The recent SAS interoperability advances are critical milestones in the development of the 3.5 GHz ecosystem.   Commercial availability of this band will foster wireless 5G services by providing the spectrum necessary to enable the densification of small cells and distributed antenna systems (“DAS”), which will deliver fast speeds and low latency to end users.   For many reasons, effective SAS interoperability is a crucial element of the entire 3.5 GHz infrastructure.
The Many Functions of SAS and their Administrators
In essence, SAS is a highly automated frequency coordinator.  The SASs that are chosen by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) will assign, authorize, and manage use of frequencies the 3.5 GHz band.  Due to the three-tied, shared spectrum structure of the 3.5 GHz band, efficient frequency coordination is critical.  One of the SASs’ important functions will to prevent interference to the Tier 1 incumbents from operations in the two lower tier CBRS bands:  licensed Priority Access (“PA”) and unlicensed General Authorization (“GAA”), as well as protecting PA licensees from interference from GAA users and other PA operators.
The FCC will designate one or more private sector administrators to oversee SAS operations.  The primary functions of the SAS administrators will be to develop protocols, procedures, and systems to enforce the FCC’s rules governing SAS operations.  In addition to overseeing frequency coordination functions, SAS administrators will be required to collect data from CBSDs and to share that data among themselves to ensure the continuity of service to all CBSDs.
Moreover, the FCC has given SAS administrators authority to assist in enforcement duties.  These administrators will be the “first line of recourse” for resolving disputes pertaining to their operations, particularly those related to interference and the unauthorized use of spectrum.
CBRS Operators’ Regulatory Requirements
In many ways, SAS administrators will be de facto regulatory agents in the 3.5 GHz world   Potential CBRS operators will need to comply with the SAS administrators’ requirements, as well as those of the FCC.  

  1. Fee Payments

The FCC permits SAS administrators to levy “reasonable fees” on GAA and PA operators fees for the services they perform.  Once the SAS administrators are chosen by the FCC, they will publish fee schedules containing all the applicable fees and deadlines for payment.  CBRS operators must pay those fees, or they will not be able to commence service.

  1. Equipment Registration

The FCC requires that all CBSDs (transmission equipment employed for use in the 3.5 GHz band) conform to standardized specifications.  These specs include:  two-way transmission capability on all 3.5 GHz frequencies, power limitations, security features, and ability to determine coordinates at a stringent degree of accuracy.  All CBSDs must be registered with a SAS administrator prior to operation.  It is incumbent on the operator to ensure that its equipment meets the technical requirements and properly register their equipment.  Registration fees may apply.
End-user devices are not regulated as CBSD, but they are subject to various requirements, including the ability to receive and decode information from CBSDs, and power restrictions.   All equipment is subject to the FCC’s equipment authorization and radiofrequency safety rules.  Non-compliant equipment can be recalled.  Hence, any user of such equipment should be sure that it comports with FCC rules.

  1. Data Collection

SAS administrators are require to collect information to ensure, among other things, that all communications and interactions between the SASs CBSDs are accurate and secure, and to perform their other duties.  The administrators are authorized to collect the necessary information from CBRS providers.  Consequently, CBRS operators should understand and comply with the data collection requirements, when they are released.  Additionally, because some of this information will be entered in the FCC’s database and made public, CBRS operators should know the FCC’s confidentiality provisions, so they may ensure that sensitive information is not released to the public.

  1. Enforcement Proceedings

Because SAS administrators have “first tier” responsibilities for enforcing disputes involving use of the 3.5 GHz band, CBRS operators should familiarize themselves with their dispute resolution protocols.   SAS administrators will be required to promulgate such protocols before commencing operations.   Because of the complexity of operations in the 3.5 GHz band, interference and other issues could arise, and operators should be armed with knowledge of the dispute rules so that swift action may be taken to resolve potentially difficult situations.

  1. Spectrum Auctions

The PA licenses will be issued via FCC auction.  The geographic areas for each license is census tracts, which correspond approximately to the political borders of cities and counties.   The terms of PA licenses will be one three year, non-renewable term (except for the first application window will permit PA license applicants for two consecutive three-year terms).  CBRS operators should know the rules for these auctions to ensure that they bid strategically and effectively.   Also, the FCC is very strict about deadlines, so operators should arrange to accurately prepare their auctions applications and timely file them.  And, all PA licensees should be aware of the FCC’s spectrum aggregation limits in each geographic area.

  1. Exclusion Zones

The FCC plans to adopt a “phased in” approach to commercialized use of the 3.5 GHz band.   During “Phase 1,” certain operations will be prohibited in the “Exclusion Zones”; coastal areas of the U.S., including the Gulf of Mexico.  During “Phase 2,” the Exclusion Zones will be converted to “Protection Zones,” in which CBRS providers may operate with permission of the applicable SAS.
The recently demonstrated SAS interoperability has set the clock ahead on commercial use of the 3.5 GHz band.  And, the FCC is rapidly moving through its SAS administrator determination process.  One company, Federated Wireless, has already received conditional SAS administrator approval from the FCC.  Some experts predict that commercial availability of 3.5 GHz services in the GAA bands will commence in the first half of 2017, with PA license auctions beginning in 2018.  The players who get in the game early will likely be the winners.   
The CommLaw Group is following this proceeding closely and stands ready to assist with any regulatory or legal matters for business that wish to avail themselves of the opportunities the 3.5 GHz band offers.  We have successfully assisted numerous clients with wireless licensing, equipment authorization, spectrum auctions, and FCC enforcement proceedings.   To learn more, please contact Ron Quirk at, or 703-714-1305. 

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