The 800 MHz Cellular Radiotelephone (Cellular) Service is in the 824–849 and 869–894 MHz spectrum range. The most common use of Cellular Service spectrum is mobile voice and data services, including cell phone, text messaging, and Internet.
The Cellular Service helped transform the communications landscape by making mobile wireless telephone services broadly available to the American public. Today, Cellular Service is available nationwide, including parts of Alaska, reaching more than 99% of the U.S. population and leaving little area still unlicensed (Unserved Area).
The Cellular Service dates back to 1981 when the FCC set aside 40 MHz of spectrum for initial licensing. To issue Cellular Service licenses, the FCC divided the U.S. into 734 geographic markets called Cellular Market Areas (CMAs) and divided the 40 MHz of spectrum into two 20-MHz amounts referred to as channel blocks: channel block A and channel block B. A single license for the A block and a single license for the B block were made available in each CMA. The B-Block spectrum was awarded to a local wireline carrier that provided landline telephone service in the CMA. The A-Block spectrum was awarded to non-wireline carriers. The wireline/non-wireline distinction for Cellular Service licensees no longer exists.
The A-Block licenses in CMAs 1 through 30 were issued by comparative hearings. Comparative hearings provided parties that filed competing applications a quasi-judicial forum to argue why they should be awarded a Cellular Service license over another party.
After awarding licenses for the first 30 CMAs by comparative hearings, the FCC adopted rules in 1984 and 1986 to issue the remaining licenses through lotteries. By 1991, almost all licenses in the remaining CMAs were issued. The few remaining licenses were issued by auction several years later, except for the Chambers, TX Block A market, which is currently served under an interim operating authorization.
In 1986, the Commission also allocated an additional 5 MHz of spectrum for each channel block, raising the total amount of spectrum per block to the current total of 25 MHz.
Originally, FCC rules required all Cellular Service licensees to provide analog service based on an analog standard referred to as Advanced Mobile Phone Service (AMPS). As of February 18, 2008, the requirement to provide analog service “sunset.” Consequently, Cellular Service licensees are no longer required to provide analog service, but may continue to do so at their option.
Initially, the FCC issued a single Cellular Service license for each channel block (block A and block) in each Cellular Market Area (CMA). The licensee of the initial license was provided a five-year period to expand coverage within the CMA. After the five-year period ended, the remaining areas (Unserved Area) reverted back to the FCC for re-licensing to additional parties.
The FCC established a two-phase licensing approach for Unserved Area that had reverted back to the FCC. Phase I was a one-time process that started as soon as the five-year period ended in a particular market and allowed parties to file an application to operate a new Cellular Service system or expand an existing one. For all but one market, which currently operates pursuant to an interim operating authorization (Chambers, TX, CMA-672A), the five-year and Phase I licensing periods have ended and Cellular Service licensing is in what was formerly labeled Phase II – an on-going process that continues to allow parties to apply for Unserved Area under certain circumstances (described below).
For decades, the Cellular Service had been licensed on a site-by-site basis, and FCC rules required licensees to file applications even for minor technical changes to improve their systems. Other similar mobile wireless services, such as the Broadband Personal Communications Service and Advanced Wireless Services, are licensed geographically and FCC rules do not require licensees to file individual applications in many instances, including for minor technical changes.
In 2012, the Commission proposed to revise the Cellular Service licensing system and ultimately adopted a substantially revised licensing scheme, Cellular Reform. Under the revised Cellular Service rules, existing licensees may serve indefinitely, on a secondary basis, Unserved Area parcels smaller than 50 contiguous square miles without any FCC filings; licensees may continue to expand their Cellular Geographic Service Areas (CGSAs) into Unserved Area, so long as the expansion area they are claiming is at least 50 contiguous square miles (but the area need not be adjacent to the exiting CGSA). The resulting licensing regime affords far greater flexibility to carriers to respond to changing market demands and expedite new service to consumers, while bringing the Cellular Service into greater harmony with other geographically licensed services.
You can also gain access to Cellular spectrum through the secondary market, which allows licensees to transfer, sell or lease spectrum.
You can find information about Cellular licenses in the Universal Licensing System (ULS). The ULS radio service code and description for Cellular is CL – Cellular. The FCC service rules for the 800 MHz Cellular Service are located in 47 CFR Part 22.
Market Areas and Channel Blocks
Cellular licenses are issued by FCC market areas and channel blocks.
FCC market areas consist of one or more counties. The market area for Cellular licenses is Cellular Market Areas (CMAs).
Channel blocks are groups of frequencies. The channel blocks for Cellular licenses are:
- A Block: 824-835, 845-846.5, 869-880, and 890-891.5 (25 MHz) – issued by CMAs
- B Block: 835-845, 846.5-849, 880-890, and 891.5-894 (25 MHz) – issued by CMAs
On February 15, 2012, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in WT Docket 12-40 to revise the licensing model for the 800 MHz Cellular Service (Cellular Service) from a site-based model to a geographic-based model. The Commission proposed to issue a geographic license for each Cellular market in two stages based on a "substantially licensed" test (meaning at least 95% of the total land area in a market and corresponding channel block was licensed or there was no unlicensed parcel within the market and corresponding channel block at least 50 contiguous square miles in size.)
On November 10, 2014, the FCC released a Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (2014 R&O and FNPRM, respectively) (FCC 14-181) in WT Docket No. 12-40 to modernize the Cellular Service rules. In the 2014 R&O, the FCC adopted substantially revised rules to change the Cellular licensing model from site-based to geographic-based while still preserving direct access to area that is yet unlicensed (Unserved Area). This resulted in a reduction in administrative burdens for licensees and FCC staff alike, with licensees gaining new flexibility to respond to changing market conditions and consumer demand.
Specifically, the 2014 R&O established geographic licenses based on Cellular Geographic Service Area (CGSA) boundaries, authorizing incumbents to serve indefinitely, on a secondary basis, Unserved Area parcels smaller than 50 contiguous square miles without any FCC filings, and allowing incumbents to continue to expand their CGSAs into Unserved Area, so long as the expansion is at least 50 contiguous square miles. The Commission deleted additional filing requirements and streamlined requirements remaining in place. It also established a field strength limit rule tailored to reflect the continued ability to expand Cellular service area coverage. These changes put the Cellular Service more on par with other geographically licensed wireless services. In the FNPRM, the FCC proposed and sought comment on additional Cellular licensing reforms and reforms of the Cellular radiated power and related technical rules.
On March 23, 2017, the Commission took further steps to reform and modernize the Cellular Service rules to facilitate efficient broadband deployment in the 800 MHz band and reduce licensee burdens, while protecting public safety communications from increased potential for unacceptable interference. Specifically, the Commission adopted a Second Report and Order, Report and Order, and Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 17-27) in both the Cellular and Wireless Radio Services (WRS) reform dockets (Second R&O, WRS R&O, and Second FNPRM, respectively).
In the Second R&O, the Commission revised Section 22.913 of the Commission’s rules to permit compliance with Effective Radiated Power (ERP) limits based on power spectral density (PSD) (watts/MHz) per sector as an option for licensees deploying wideband technologies such as LTE, while retaining the existing non-PSD limits (watts per emission) for Cellular licensees that deploy narrowband technologies. This ensures that carriers are treated similarly regardless of technology choice, and aligns the Cellular power rules with those used to provide mobile broadband in other service bands (e.g., Broadband Personal Communications Services (PCS), the 700 MHz Service, and certain Advanced Wireless Services (AWS)).
The Second R&O made conforming changes to related Cellular technical rules to accommodate PSD, adopted a more flexible rule concerning permanent discontinuance of operations, and eliminated certain filing requirements for minor system changes. The WRS R&O deleted the Part 22 rules pertaining to Cellular license renewals. (NOTE: On November 6, 2017, FCC staff convened a public forum, as directed in the Second R&O, to facilitate a dialog about improving coexistence in the 800 MHz band. Participants included Cellular and other commercial wireless licensees, public safety licensees, and public safety equipment manufacturers.)
The Second FNRPM sought comment on eliminating additional Part 22 rules and possibly relocating the Cellular, PCS, and certain other geographically-based wireless service rules to Part 27.
On July 13, 2018, to build on the reforms in the 2014 R&O and the Second R&O, the FCC released the Third Report and Order (FCC 18-92) (Third R&O) adopting amendments to rules governing Cellular Service and other commercial mobile radio services licensees to free up more resources for investment in new technologies and greater spectrum efficiency. Specifically, the FCC eliminated several Part 22 recordkeeping and reporting obligations that were adopted more than two decades ago—obligations for which there is no longer a benefit to outweigh the compliance costs and burdens imposed on licensees. It also eliminated certain Cellular Service-specific rules that are no longer necessary. These reforms provide Cellular Service and other Part 22 licensees with enhanced flexibility and advance the goal of ensuring more consistency in licensing across commercial wireless services, while taking into account unique features of each service. The Commission subsequently denied a Petition for Reconsideration of the Third R&O, in its Order on Reconsideration issued in 2019 (FCC 19-26).
The first of two Cellular auctions started on May 29, 2002 and ended on June 4, 2002. The two auctions are:
- Auction No. 45: 5/29/2002 – 6/4/2002
- Auction No. 77: 6/17/2008 – 6/17/2008 (to resolve mutually exclusive unserved area applications)
You can view some historical releases about the Cellular Service at the Cellular Service Releases.