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In the 1980s, the FCC launched the 800 MHz Cellular Service, the first “cell phone” spectrum band, sparking a worldwide mobile revolution.  Three decades later, Cellular has been, by any measure, an incredible success.  Using these frequencies, wireless operators have deployed multiple generations of wireless networks covering more than 99% of the U.S. population.  Yet, with the passage of time, it has become clear that many of the rules governing the Cellular Service have not kept pace with changes in technology and in the overall regulatory landscape.  The time has come to upgrade the Cellular Service rules for the 21st Century.

Today, Chairman Wheeler circulated a draft Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that puts forth major changes to modernize and streamline the Commission’s rules and application processes for Cellular Service licensees.   This reform would fulfill a recommendation in the Staff Report on FCC Process Reform by reducing regulatory burdens and fostering the deployment of new generations of Cellular Service across the country. 

Since the Commission first adopted rules governing the Cellular Service, mobile service and mobile devices have evolved from analog-based voice communications using suitcase-style devices, to high speed mobile broadband using pocket sized computers.  The Cellular Service licensing rules have not kept pace.

Over time, many of the Commission’s legacy Cellular rules that were instrumental in developing a successful service have outlived their usefulness and some now burden the timely deployment of the latest technologies.  

The proposed rule changes reflect many years of experience with the Cellular rules and extensive engagement with stakeholders about how to move forward with reform.  The draft Report and Order would transition the site-based Cellular Service to a geographic-based licensing regime.  This shift would bring the Cellular Service into greater harmony with other mobile services, including PCS, 700 MHz and AWS.  Under this approach, the Commission would eliminate or revise a large number of filing requirements, reduce licensee filing burdens by more than 60%, and eliminate barriers to the timely deployment of advanced services to the public.

In the Further Notice, the Commission would propose and seek comment on additional issues relating to Cellular Service reform, including technical changes that could foster the deployment of wider-band technologies, such as LTE. 

A lot has changed in the past thirty years.  It is amazing that the Cellular Service has been going strong for this long.  Despite this success, the time has come to prepare the Cellular Service for the next 30 years of innovation.