FCC’s Rural Tribal Priority Application Window for Access to 2.5 GHz Spectrum

By Michael Godbe, CILS Bishop office Registered Legal Aid Attorney

Apply before the August 3rd Deadline!

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently accepting applications from federally recognized rural tribes for licenses to control unassigned airwave spectrum over their tribal lands.

Rural tribes that apply before the 3:00 p.m.(PSD) August 3, 2020 deadline will receive spectrum licenses for free before the remaining spectrum is opened up to large corporations for sale at auction.

This is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to promote tribal sovereignty and economic development for rural tribes. This has never happened before and should not be missed.

Find out more information below and act now!

Here is what rural tribes should know.

 

What?

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) – the federal body that controls the licensing of the public airwaves (e.g. radio licenses) – has created a Rural Tribal Priority Window for federally-recognized tribes to apply for licenses to control bands of 2.5 GHz spectrum over tribal lands. This spectrum band is high enough for use with the deployment of 5G wireless technology – widely anticipated to be the future of digital communication and interconnection, e.g. – cell phones, ‘internet of things’, driverless cars, etc.

 

Who?

Any federally recognized tribe located in a “rural” area may apply for during the Rural Tribal Priority Window. Consortia of federally recognized tribes, or other entities controlled and majority-owned by such tribes or consortiums, are also eligible to apply.

“Rural” means areas that do not include an urbanized area or urban cluster with a population equal to or greater than 50,000. The FCC’s list of rural tribal shapefiles excludes urban areas (i.e., if a tribe’s land is included in the list shapefiles, it qualifies as “rural”).

 

When?

The Rural Tribal Priority Window opened Monday, February 3, 2020, and closes on Monday, August 3, 2020 at 6PM EDT / 3pm PSD. This is the deadline for rural tribes to apply for spectrum licenses.

Due to delays caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19), the Congressional Native American Caucus and the National Congregation of American Indians have each sent letters to the FCC requesting the deadline be extended, however, the deadline is not expected to be extended.

Tribes that want to apply during the window should expect and plan to submit applications before the August 3, 2020 deadline.

 

What Are the Benefits of Accessing this Spectrum?

Holding a spectrum license can be both a resource and an asset, and can be used to support tribal sovereignty and economic development. When rural tribes control their own spectrum, they are empowered to close the digital divide and bring high-speed wireless technology to their lands instead of waiting for a telecom company to decide to bring it to them.

Corporations spend enormous sums of money in FCC auctions to obtain spectrum. Tribes now have a very short window to obtain spectrum licenses over their rural tribal lands at no cost. By obtaining a spectrum license, tribes may be able to:

  • Establish or enhance a broadband network for their rural lands
  • Leverage the license to incentivize telecom companies to establish high-quality service on otherwise neglected tribal lands
  • Leverage the value of the license to obtain credit (i.e., use the license as collateral on a bank loan)
  • Lease their spectrum to telecom companies for the provision of services and economic development
  • Trade access to their spectrum for other assets or services
  • Sell their spectrum

By controlling spectrum, tribes can ensure that various tribal services, such as tribal police departments and medical services, receive access to high-speed internet connectivity.

As the frequency bands used to communicate change with technological development, control over more useful and desired bands of spectrum will become an increasingly important aspect of tribal sovereignty and self-determination. If tribes control a useful band of spectrum in the airspace above their lands, they can ensure their members receive high-speed internet and 5G mobile coverage, and they can prevent third parties from charging them to access this band of spectrum.

Spectrum may also become an important tool for economic development, as it may be able to be leveraged for the development of other projects as necessary (e.g. by leasing spectrum access to digital services providers seeking to provide access to consumers on reservation land, or by securing bank loans for economic development).

 

What is required of tribes once they receive a Spectrum License?

Successful tribal applicants to the Rural Tribal Priority Window that receive a license must put their spectrum to use. While the following may sound complicated, it is actually relatively easy for even small rural tribes to meet the requirements. What’s important right now is that rural tribes apply before August 3rd, and then they can figure out these details later.

Here are the requirements for license holders:

Tribes can meet the licensee requirements in either of two ways: tribal licensees can meet the Coverage requirement goals or they can meet the Point-to-Point requirement goals. Tribes can also pursue both, but they do not need to in order to keep their license.

Both requirement tracks have the first deadline after two years and a final deadline after five years. If a tribe fails to meet the first deadline (2 years), the final deadline shortened by one year, from five to four years.

 

Coverage requirement goals:

After 2 years . . . After 5 years . . .
Mobile or Point-to-multipoint Service Coverage must be available to 50% of the population in your license area (tribal land) (50% adoption is not required) Coverage must be available to 80% of the population in your license area (tribal land) (80% adoption is not required)

 

Point-to-point requirement goals:

After 2 years . . . After 5 years . . .
Fixed Point-to-Point Service 1 point-to-point link per 50,000 people 1 point-to-point link per 25,000 people

 

Timeline / Deadlines:

After 2 years . . . After 5 years . . .
Consequence if neither goal is met Final deadline speeds up: you will be required to meet the ‘after 5 years’ requirements within 4 years Tribe will lose the spectrum license

 

Coverage Requirement Goals

The Coverage (aka point-to-multipoint or mobile) requirement goals are really about making cellular or internet service available to the population living on the tribe’s trust land.

Meeting the Coverage goals will likely be more difficult than meeting the Point-to-Point goals, however, most tribes will be able to meet this goal by installing (or contracting with a telecom company to install and operate) a single access point (e.g.a. cell tower).

Don’t worry, these coverage requirement goals do not mean that 50% / 80% of the population must have their own wired connections to their homes, or that 50% / 80% of the population must be using the newest, most expensive, 5G-compatible cell phone. Access must be available to the population.

Interested tribes can seek assistance from legal counsel like CILS if they have specific questions, but tribes should not let the coverage requirement goals discourage them from applying. 

Point-to-Point Link Requirement Goals

Alternatively, or in addition to, a tribal licensee may meet the Point-to-Point Link requirement goal.  This primarily relates to sharing a closed network between two or more physically separate buildings.

To meet this goal, licensees must build one “point-to-point link” by the first deadline (2 years from license grant) and have at least one “point-to-point link” per 25,000 people within the service area by the second deadline (5, or 4 years from license grant). All California tribal licensees will meet the final deadline when they meet the first deadline because no California tribes have a reservation population above 25,000 people.

A “point-to-point link” simply means creating a wireless connection between two or more points, using the 2.5 GHz spectrum.

For example, if a rural tribe has two administrative buildings separated by 100 feet, the tribe could meet the single ‘point-to-point’ link requirement by bringing the internet via fiber optic cable into building A, setting up a transmitter (point 1, in building A) and receiver (point 2, in building B), and transmitting the internet wirelessly to the second building. While market prices are always subject to change, setting up a simple ‘point-to-point’ link like the one described above should cost a tribe roughly between $2,500 and $3,500. Of course, tribal licensees can do much more than this with their spectrum, but the point is that a tribe can hold on to its spectrum license with an investment of a few thousand dollars.

 

What Happens if a tribal licensee fails to meet those goals?

Ultimately, a tribal licensee that fails to meet either of the goals by the final deadline will lose the Spectrum license. If a tribe does nothing at all after receiving a spectrum license, it will lose the license in 4 years. There is no other consequence besides losing the license. If a tribe loses its license, the spectrum will revert to the overlay license holder for the relevant county, or the FCC may sell the lost license at auction.

 

How soon can a tribal licensee sell or transfer their Spectrum License?

Successful tribal licensees may not sell or transfer their licenses until after the above final buildout requirements are met (service coverage available to 80% of the population by the final deadline or one point-to-point link per every 25,000 people by the final deadline). However, licensees may lease their spectrum sooner, and the service provided by a lessee (i.e. a telecom company) will be counted towards the buildout requirement.

 

Is Spectrum available to every Federally Recognized Tribe?

Not necessarily. In order to apply for a license in the Tribal Priority Window, there must be some spectrum on the channel and over the rural tribal land that is not currently assigned/licensed to another licensee.

There are three (3) channels available to tribes in the 2.5GHz spectrum, and tribes can apply for licenses in one or all three channels – as long as there is not currently assigned spectrum in the channel that covers the entirety of the tribe’s land.

To determine if spectrum is available for your tribe, the FCC has created a rural tribal mapping tool. The FCC’s mapping tool can be used by tribal entities to help assess whether and to what extent there is unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum in each of three channels is available over their eligible tribal lands. Tribes should check each channel over their lands in the mapping tool and verify that all channels are not all red. For some tribes in Southern California, there is no available unassigned spectrum in any of the 3 channels.

For example, the Hoopa Tribe in Northern California is eligible to apply for spectrum in all three channels because the entirety of the spectrum over its trust land is not already assigned:

 

The FCC’s mapping tool can also be used to determine where tribal applications have been submitted.

Spectrum licenses are only available to federally recognized tribes.

 

What happens if your tribe does not apply for available spectrum?

The Tribal Priority Window allows tribes to apply for licenses in three specific frequencies/channels all within the 2.5GHz band of spectrum.  The FCC has already auctioned off other high-frequency spectrum bands and has additional actions for the mid-band range planned for 2020.

It is likely that the FCC will auction off 2.5GHz spectrum bands over tribal lands which tribes decline to apply for during the Tribal Priority Window to private bidders. If this happens, tribes may end up with no choice but to pay a third party to access this band of spectrum over their lands.

 

Which tribes have already applied for spectrum?

You can view a list of tribal applicants that have applied for spectrum within the Tribal Priority Window here.

 

How do tribes apply for Spectrum?

All applications must be completed online using the FCC’s Universal Licensing System (ULS); there is no other way to submit an application during the Rural Tribal Priority Window.

First, tribal applicants need an FCC Registration Number (FRN) to apply. Instructions for applying an FRN can be found here (click on “Register for a New FRN”), and the application itself can be found here. FCC staff are also available to assist applicants throughout the process, and questions should be directed to RuralTribalWindow@fcc.gov.

Once tribes have an FRN, they can proceed with the application.

Second, tribal applicants will submit a current FCC Form 602 (Ownership Disclosure Application) online. The online version of this form is a streamlined version of what is available on the FCC’s website.

Third, tribal applicants must submit a current FCC Form 601 (Application for Radio Service Authorization). Tribal applicants will use this form to demonstrate that they have a local presence on the trust land (i.e. that the tribe is providing service on/to the land and have tribal members living there), and select available channels. The online version of this form is a streamlined version of what is available on the FCC’s website.

Fourth, tribal applicants will submit a shapefile file that shows the geographic outline of their tribal lands (find your rural tribe’s shapefile on the FCC website here).

Tribes interested in applying for spectrum should being this process as soon as possible.

 

How CILS Can Help:

CILS is here for you and your tribe and can assist your tribe to completely and correctly submit an application to the FCC. We can also answer questions about the application and the potential benefits to your tribe of licensing spectrum. Don’t wait until the last minute to reach out to us!

 

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