FCC frees up spectrum for mobile broadband

The Federal Communications Commission took up issues relating to wireless spectrum at its monthly meeting today, voting to initiate a pair of rulemaking proceedings as it continues work to free up more sections of the airwaves for robust wireless broadband service.

By unanimous votes, the FCC opened proceedings to consider a proposal by Dish Network to reallocate a 40 MHz of spectrum currently licensed for satellite usage to wireless service, and a framework to achieve mobile device interoperability in a key portion of the airwaves while guarding against interference.

The latter issue, concerning the 700 MHz band of spectrum, has broadly pitted rural carriers against AT&T and Verizon, with the smaller firms arguing that their larger rivals have used their market clout to prevent certain devices from operating on all networks within that spectrum.

The Rural Carrier Association (RCA) hailed the FCC's move for its potential to level the playing field with large incumbents, which have argued that past device interoperability proposals would not shield their networks from interference, a standoff that prompted the FCC's regulatory intervention.

"Many RCA members own spectrum in the lower 700 MHz spectrum but are unable to build out their networks and compete with others moving to 4G/LTE because of a lack of interoperability," Steven Berry, the trade group's president and CEO, said in a statement. "The sooner this is resolved, the faster customers all across the country will have access to 4G/LTE devices and services."

The Process Begins for Dish Network

For Dish, the commission's action begins the formal process of freeing up a recently acquired portion of the 2 GHz band of spectrum, known as AWS-2, for wireless broadband.

The FCC's move comes on the same day that the Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel is planning to hold a hearing to consider the implications of Verizon's blockbuster deal to purchase spectrum licenses from Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. That proposed transaction came alongside an agreement between Verizon and the cable firms to cross-sell each other's services. Public interest groups and unions representing affected workers have blasted those agreements, arguing that they would effectively create a monopoly in the telecom sector.

The FCC has identified spectrum reallocation as a signature priority in its broadband agenda, and recently won a major victory on Capitol Hill when Congress approved legislation authorizing the commission to conduct so-called incentive auctions, through which television broadcasters would be invited to relinquish their spectrum licenses in exchange for a portion of the proceeds generated through the resale to wireless broadband operators.

In Dish's case, the FCC's move to initiate a rulemaking proceeding, often a lengthy process, was a setback for the company, which had been pushing for an immediate waiver to clear the path for its wireless build-out.

"We worked hard to demonstrate that the grant of those waivers was in the public interest, and we wish that we had been successful," Dish said in a statement earlier this month in response to the FCC's decision to deny the waiver. "We believe that the denial of those waivers will delay the advancement of some of President Obama's and the FCC's highest priorities -- namely freeing up new spectrum for commercial use and introducing new mobile broadband competition."

But ultimately, the FCC appears likely to consent to the company's repurposing plans, according to Stifel Nicolaus analyst Christopher King.

"We expect the FCC will approve, probably late 2012, general terrestrial use of the 2 GHz band, which Dish needs to deploy wireless broadband service and or at least increase the spectrum's value," King wrote in a research note. "The question is how the FCC will go about making this change, particularly the requirements it could impose on Dish."

Indeed, the three commissioners spoke in unison about the pressing need to convert more portions of the airwaves for mobile broadband as the heavy usage of increasingly data-intensive applications continues to strain wireless networks.

"Our appetite for spectrum seems insatiable," observed Commissioner Robert McDowell.

McDowell is currently the lone Republican on the panel, serving alongside Democrat Julius Genachowski, the FCC's chairman, and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. The FCC, normally a five-person body, is awaiting confirmation of two commissioners whose nominations have been delayed in the Senate.

In the Dish proceeding, the FCC will consider rules concerning flexible use of the spectrum, block pairing, safeguards against interference and a timely deployment schedule.

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.

This story, "FCC frees up spectrum for mobile broadband" was originally published by CIO.

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