Spectrum battle to be in spotlight at wireless conference
A high-stakes battle for radio-frequency spectrum that pits companies looking to build high-speed mobile networks against fixed wireless carriers and other current spectrum occupants is expected to be a big topic of discussion at a wireless industry conference that starts tomorrow in Las Vegas.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is scheduled late next week to issue a decision on how to reallocate spectrum frequencies in order to make room for upcoming third-generation (3G) mobile wireless services. In advance of that action, the two sides in the debate have been engaging in a quiet, but intense, lobbying fight.
One of the key participants is the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), a Washington-based trade group that's sponsoring this week's Wireless 2001 conference. In a filing with submitted to the FCC last month, the CTIA sided with mobile providers that want to be able to offer 3G services on frequencies already used by other companies and organizations.
Trying to protect their current spectrum positions are fixed wireless carriers such as Sprint Corp. and WorldCom Inc., plus a group of educational institutions ranging form local school districts to universities. The FCC is also looking at a frequency band occupied by the U.S. Department of Defense, but the Pentagon hasn't made any public statements about the possible reallocation of the spectrum it uses.
The spectrum needed to support 3G mobile networks services has to be reallocated because all the usable frequency bands are already occupied. And the ongoing fight is a crucial one for the participants: Spectrum "is the stuff of life" for wireless carriers, said Craig Mathias, an analyst at Far Point Group in Ashland, Mass. But the battle "isn't about engineering," he added. "It's about politics and lawyers."
In its filing with the FCC, the CTIA said "a substantial amount of spectrum will need to be allocated to ensure that carriers [can] offer advanced wireless services competitively." The fast growth of existing Internet and mobile data services makes additional allocations of spectrum for 3G networks necessary, the trade group added.
But fixed wireless carriers adamantly oppose any reallocation of the 2.1GHz and 2.5-2.7GHz frequency bands that they use to provide "last-mile" services to corporate and home users. For example, Sprint spent billions of dollars to acquire frequencies in markets across the U.S. so it could bypass local wireless carriers, and the Kansas City, Mo.-based company claims its investment would be threatened by a reallocation of the spectrum it uses.
The FCC "actively encouraged [Sprint] and other fixed wireless carriers to provide last-mile Internet and other wideband services over the 2GHz bands," the company said in a filing with the commission. Any reallocation of those frequencies to 3G services would constitute "an arbitrary departure from established Commission policy," Sprint added.
Sprint argued that "interference concerns" make it impossible for fixed wireless and 3G mobile services to share the same spectrum. And forcing fixed wireless carriers to switch to another frequency band would require "relocation of many transmitters and customer receivers," according to Sprint. That would be "an incredibly expensive and time-consuming process," it said.
Educational institutions also operate fixed wireless services, known as the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), in the 2GHz band. During the past month, ITFS backers have inundated the FCC with comments contending that their use of the those frequencies is essential to bridging the "digital divide" that limits the technology access of poor people.
Jim Leutze, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said in a letter to the commission last month that continued access "to superior ITFS frequencies is a crucial piece of how we will overcome the digital divide and bring new opportunities to children, workers and families who live in the rural south."
Shifting ITFS to new frequencies would derail a statewide network in North Carolina "that has been in the planning stages for more than seven years," Leutze added.
A consortium of 28 educational groups -- including the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the National Education Association and the National Association of Independent Schools -- also argued against any reallocation of the spectrum now used by the ITFS.
"What remains largely unproven is the need for any additional spectrum [for] 3G services," the groups said in their filing with the FCC. "We suggest that the Commission examine the current spectrum usage and needs of various providers before determining whether any additional spectrum is required."
The FCC is due to make its decision on March 30. The commission is acting in response to an order that was issued last fall by former president Bill Clinton, who mobilized a variety of federal agencies to jumpstart the process of assigning the radio-frequency spectrum needed to support advanced wireless services.
In November, the FCC released a report that said 3G mobile services could cause "extensive interference" if they shared spectrum with other uses. The report also said moving ITFS to new frequencies would "raise technical and economic difficulties for the incumbents."
Mathias said the FCC should think carefully before reallocating spectrum frequencies from either ITFS or fixed wireless services to 3G networks, which he doesn't expect will be in widespread use until 2004. For users, Mathias said, fixed wireless has proven to be a viable alternative to high-speed wired services.