The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted changes to its rules for the 3.5GHz band despite harsh criticism from one member, shifting to larger licence areas and longer terms favoured by major operators eyeing the spectrum for 5G.

Changes adopted by the FCC on Tuesday (23 October) accommodate operator demands, increasing the licence zones from small geographic areas known as census tracts to county-wide, extending the duration from three years to ten years and making the licences renewable. The order also ensures seven priority licences will be available in each area, which can be partitioned to enable licence holders to lease some of their spectrum on the secondary market.

In 2015, the FCC designated 3.5GHz as an innovation band, with a three-tier access framework to encourage sharing between incumbents, licensed and general users, and census tract licences to enable hyper-local deployments. The band is also known as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the US.

However, large operators complained they could not justify investments in the band with such limited licences and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly (pictured, left of centre), who spearheaded the FCC’s effort to overhaul the rules, said “it was clear during a review that the past administration rules were not supportive of large-scale deployments”.

The changes were welcomed by players including industry association CTIA and operator AT&T, the latter of which said they provide “necessary clarity and certainty” to support the delivery of LTE and 5G services in the band.

However, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (pictured, far left) blasted the shift as “shortsighted” and “at odds with what is needed for a successful future”.

“We take what was most innovative about the 3.5GHz band model and cast it aside in favour of existing business models,” she commented.

Adoption of the rules comes ahead of expected commercial deployments in the band from Verizon and others by the year-end, and shortly after Qualcomm and Ericsson announced the successful completion of a standards-based 5G call over 3.5GHz using a mobile test device in a laboratory.

Unlocking more for unlicensed
The Commission also proposed new rules which would open up a 1,200MHz channel of spectrum in the 6GHz band for unlicensed use.

Wi-Fi Alliance applauded the move, hailing the FCC for taking “an important step towards preserving broadband wireless connectivity for millions of Americans and creating new opportunities for the next generation of Wi-Fi”.