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.
Similar services include the 700 MHz Service, Advanced Wireless Service (AWS), Broadband Personal Communications Service (PCS), and Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) Service.
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.
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.