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).