Reports detail interference, cost problems in securing 3G spectrum

After six months of study, two federal reports concluded that moving current users from frequency bands targeted for advanced mobile services would cost billions of dollars and could result in serious interference to those users.

Two federal agencies released reports today concluding that to provide advanced, broadband mobile data services on either of two proposed frequency bands could cause serious interference to systems operated by the U.S. Department of Defense and fixed wireless operators that have invested billions of dollars in their spectrum.

Last fall, President Clinton directed the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to determine which of two frequency bands -- 2,500/2,690-MHz and 1,710/1,850-MHz -- could best provide the spectrum required to accommodate high-speed, third-generation (3G) mobile services. Clinton called 3G spectrum critical to the country's economic future (see story).

In its report (in PDF format), the NTIA, which is charged with managing the government's radio frequency spectrum, determined that shifting federal users off the 1,710/1,850-MHz bands could take more than a decade and cost $4.6 billion. The agency's report also concluded that it would be difficult for mobile services and federal agencies, primarily the Defense Department, to share spectrum in that band, because such sharing would raise concerns about interference between cell phone users and critical Pentagon systems, such as satellite control links. The spectrum is also used by the NASA Deep Space Prove Tracking Networking, the Forest Service and the U.S. Customs Service.

Meanwhile, the FCC, which has oversight over the nonfederal portion of the spectrum, concluded in its report (in PDF format) that any sharing in the 2,500/2,690-MHz spectrum band between mobile and fixed wireless users would result in "extensive interference" between the two types of service.

The FCC report added that there was "no readily identifiable alternate frequency band" to accommodate fixed wireless users. Sprint Corp., for example, uses the band for "last-mile" service to homes and businesses as an alternative to digital subscriber line services provided by local phone companies. Schools and universities across the country also use the band for wireless Internet services and have made deals with fixed wireless carriers to have the carriers resell their spectrum for commercial use.

The FCC said that even if an alternative band was found, the studies indicated that it could cost as much as $19 billion to shift the current users to new frequencies.

James Fisher, a spokesman for Sprint, said the report means "the FCC will not work to move us [from existing bands] ... to do so would kill another choice for broadband service." The FCC has actively promoted broadband as an alternative to local phone companies service in an effort to promote competition and a lower cost to end users. Sprint currently offers fixed broadband services as a competitive alternative in 14 markets aand has invested billions of dollars in acquiring fixed wireless spectrum.

The FCC didn't indicate how it would resolve the problems detailed in the two reports, but it invited public comments on them through April 16.

Last week, the new FCC Chairman Michael Powell indicated that he viewed the Pentagon's spectrum as sacrosanct. During a question and answer session last week at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association's (CTIA) annual convention in Las Vegas, CTIA president Tom Wheeler repeatedly pressed Powell for an endorsement of the need for new spectrum for 3G services. Wheeler asked Powell on whether the Pentagon would sacrifice its frequencies for mobile use. Powell, who's the son of Colin Powell, the secretary of state and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointedly replied, "we cannot trivialize the uses of spectrum for national defense."

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., said he believes "it is very unlikely the cellular guys will ever get hold of the Pentagon spectrum," but added "there is a possibility of some sharing in the satellite bands." The NTIA report said that in some cases and in some locations, there is the possibility of mobile users and Defense Department satellite control facilities sharing spectrum under carefully restricted conditions.

Mathias also said the cellular telephone industry can satisfy its hunger for frequency by "overlaying" broadband networks on top of their existing frequencies, as well as using spectrum in TV channels 60-69, which the FCC plans to sell at auction.

This story, "Reports detail interference, cost problems in securing 3G spectrum" was originally published by Computerworld.

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