The Cellular Radiotelephone (Cellular) Service is in the 824 – 849 and 869 – 894 MHz spectrum range. The most common use of cellular spectrum is mobile voice and data services, including cell phone, text messaging, and Internet.
The Cellular Service dates back to 1981 when the FCC set aside 40 MHz of spectrum for cellular licensing. To issue cellular 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 the B block were made available in each market. The B block of spectrum was awarded to a local wireline carrier that provided landline telephone service in the CMA. The A block was awarded to non-wireline carriers. The wireline/non-wireline distinction for cellular licenses no longer exists.
A Block licenses in CMA 1 – 30 were issued by comparative hearings. Comparative hearings provided parties with competing applications a quasi-judicial forum to argue why they should be awarded a cellular 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.
Proposal to Change Cellular Licensing Model
On February 15, 2012, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to revise the licensing model for the Cellular Service from a site-based model to a geographic-based model. The proposal is to issue a geographic license for each Cellular market in two stages based on a "Substantially Licensed" test. Substantially Licensed means at least 95% of the total land area in a market and corresponding channel block is licensed or there is no unlicensed parcel within the market and corresponding channel block at least 50 contiguous square miles in size. This proposal is currently pending.
Originally, FCC rules required all cellular 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.” This means licensees are no longer required to provide analog service, but can continue to do so at their option.
Cellular licensees that stop providing analog service must either provide a revised cellular geographic service area showing (CGSA) or submit a certification stating that discontinuance of analog service will not result in any loss of cellular coverage throughout the affected CGSA. The certification must be filed at least 60 days before discontinuing analog service in a particular CGSA.
Additional information about filing the certifications and reviewing existing certifications is available at the Cellular Coverage Certifications page.
Cellular System Identification Numbers (SIDs)
System Identification Numbers (SIDs) are 15-bit numeric identifiers used in cellular systems to identify the home system and roaming status for a cellular phone. Originally, the FCC oversaw the administration of SIDs. However, starting on October 1, 2003, the administration of SIDs transferred to the private sector. There are currently two SID Administrators that are authorized by the FCC.
Initially, the FCC issued a single cellular license for each Cellular Market Area (CMA) and channel block (block A and block B). 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 not covered reverted back to the FCC for licensing to additional parties. The five-year period to expand coverage is no longer available.
The FCC established a two phase licensing approach for areas that reverted back to the FCC. Phase I was a one-time process that started as soon as the five-year period ended and allowed parties to file an application to operate a new cellular system or expand an existing cellular system. Phase I licensing is no longer available. Phase II is an on-going process that allows parties to apply for unserved areas after Phase I ended. At this point, all cellular licensing is in Phase II.
You can also gain access to Cellular spectrum through the secondary market, which allows licensees to transfer, sell or lease spectrum.
The FCC service rules for the Cellular Service are located in 47 C.F.R. 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
The 800 MHz Cellular Service, launched by the FCC in the 1980’s, 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).
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.
On November 10, 2014, the FCC released a Report and Order (R&O) and a companion Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) to revise the Cellular licensing model from site-based to geographic-based, and to enhance technical flexibility. By the R&O, the FCC has adopted new and revised rules to eliminate regulatory requirements and modernize and streamline requirements remaining in place. Among the key changes adopted by the R&O, the FCC authorizes incumbents to serve indefinitely, on a secondary basis, Unserved Area parcels smaller than 50 contiguous square miles without any FCC filings; allows incumbents to continue to expand their Cellular Geographic Service Areas (CGSAs) into Unserved Area, so long as the expansion is at least 50 contiguous square miles; institutes the mandatory filing of electronic maps; establishes a field strength limit rule tailored to reflect the continued ability to expand Cellular service area coverage; and, with the exception of the Gulf of Mexico market, eliminates the need to submit filings related to negotiated extensions of service area boundaries. The various rule revisions are expected to reduce Cellular filings by at least 60 percent. 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.
In the FNPRM, the FCC proposes and seeks comment on additional Cellular Service reforms, including: a more flexible rule for permanent discontinuance of operations; the use of frequency coordinators for applications that propose a new or expanded CGSA; and changes in the radiated power rules that could foster the deployment of wider-band technologies such as LTE, including measurement of power using a power spectral density (Watts per Megahertz) model and other changes in related technical rules.
Cellular License Boundaries
- Cellular Geographic Service Areas
- Wireless Telecommunications Bureau announces electronic filing option for Cellular Radiotelephone Service full-size maps
- Cellular System Identification Numbers (SIDs)
- Universal Licensing System (ULS)
- Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR) Part 22
A: As explained in the 2014 R&O (see FCC 14-181, ¶22), land-based Cellular licensees adjoining the Gulf will be required to negotiate any desired SAB extensions into the Exclusive Zone and submit minor modification applications to the Commission, certifying that such consent has been obtained; and Cellular licensees in the Exclusive Zone will likewise be required to negotiate any desired SAB extensions into the licensed area of neighboring land-based carriers and submit minor modification applications to the Commission, certifying that such consent has been obtained. See 47 C.F.R. §§22.912(c) and 22.953(c) (as adopted in the R&O).
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 page.