FCC frees up 25MHz of wireless spectrum for broadband

The commission clears the way for mobile broadband on the controversial 2.3GHz spectrum

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has adopted rules that would allow mobile broadband providers to offer services on a 25MHz band of spectrum that's been controversial because of interference concerns from satellite radio provider Sirius XM Radio and other users of nearby spectrum.

The FCC on Thursday voted to amend the Wireless Communications Service (WCS) spectrum rules to include mobile broadband uses, in addition to fixed wireless services previously permitted. The commission's action to free up the WCS spectrum for mobile broadband use is the first step in the FCC's plan to find 500MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband over the next 10 years, a goal outlined in the agency's national broadband plan released in March.

The WCS spectrum, in the 2.3GHz band, surrounds spectrum used by Sirius to deliver its service. Complaints about potential interference have been levied by both WCS owners and satellite radio operators since the late '90s, when the FCC auctioned off both the WCS spectrum and the satellite radio spectrum. Comcast and BellSouth (now AT&T) were among the big winners in the WCS spectrum auction in 1997.

The commission's unanimous vote Thursday established power level maximums for WCS spectrum users, and it allows Sirius to use terrestrial repeaters to boost its signals. The FCC order also requires WCS spectrum holders to build out their service to 40 percent of the license area within 42 months and 75 percent within 72 months.

The FCC's goal was to make the WCS spectrum immediately available for mobile broadband while protecting services in adjacent bands from interference, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said. In addition to Sirius, operators of aeronautical telemetry services had also raised interference concerns.

"The modification to our WCS rules comes at the moment that 4G technologies are ready to be commercially deployed," he said. "I am pleased that by taking a fresh look at the WCS rules, we are able to create an environment for innovative, cutting-edge mobile products and services in a spectrum band that has essentially remained fallow for years."

The FCC's voted closes a "long and difficult chapter of our spectrum policy," added Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker. Spectrum holders on both sides conducted tests in 2009 to show what conditions needed to be put in place to avoid interference, she said.

The decision is a "balanced and viable compromise between the need to facilitate the deployment of mobile broadband and promote spectrum efficiency and the need to protect incumbent interests in both aeronautical telemetry and satellite radio from harmful interference," Baker said. "The rule provides a practical and intelligent solution that will benefit the public by enabling the deployment of latest generation wireless technologies while protecting important services in the adjacent bands."

A spokesman for Sirius didn't immediately respond to a request for a reaction to the FCC's decision.

Also on Thursday, the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking focused on updating the E-Rate program, an FCC program that subsidizes broadband service to schools and libraries in poor areas. The proposed rules would attempt to streamline the E-Rate application process and give schools and libraries more options for broadband providers, to include community-based broadband services.

The FCC also adopted an order and further notice of proposed rulemaking designed to make it easier for broadband providers to get access to utility poles.

Access by broadband providers to poles can be "slow, costly, and mired in long disputes," the FCC said in a press release. The new order would allow broadband providers to use the same space- and cost-saving techniques that pole owners use, including placing attachments on both sides of a pole, the FCC said.

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