FCC moves to open up new mobile spectrum

The agency also takes a step toward smartphone interoperability in the 700MHz spectrum

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has voted to move ahead with plans to open up 40MHz of wireless spectrum in the 2GHz band to mobile voice and broadband service.

The FCC, in a 3-0 vote Wednesday, agreed to open a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, asking what to do with the so-called S band of the mobile satellite services spectrum. In an NPRM, the agency seeks public comment on proposed rules, and the FCC's new notice asks whether to allow current licensee Dish Network to offer mobile service or to auction the spectrum.

Dish Network purchased the spectrum from TerreStar and DBSD in a US$3 billion-plus deal that closed this month. The company has not detailed how it plans to use the spectrum, although it has said it is committed to helping the FCC solve a predicted mobile spectrum shortage and will explore a "market entry."

More mobile broadband spectrum is needed because of the skyrocketing use of mobile data services in the U.S., members of the FCC and the mobile industry have said.

The commission's action Wednesday was a "small but important step" toward bringing more spectrum to market, said Commissioner Robert McDowell.

AT&T and CTIA, a trade group representing mobile carriers, both praised the FCC for moving forward on the spectrum. The FCC's 2-year-old broadband plan sets a goal of opening up 500 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband within 10 years.

Also on Wednesday, the FCC voted to launch an NPRM focused on ensuring that smartphones and other mobile devices used in the lower 700MHz band of spectrum are interoperable across spectrum owned by different carriers. Regional mobile carriers have complained that Verizon and AT&T, the two biggest winners in the 700MHz spectrum auctions in early 2008, have been asking device manufacturers for equipment that will only work in their spectrum blocks.

The "big two" carriers won about 81 percent of the spectrum in the 700MHz auctions, according to the 700MHz Block A Good Faith Purchasers Alliance, made up of C Spire Wireless, Cavalier Wireless and other regional mobile carriers.

"Competition in the wireless marketplace is already on shaky ground, and if AT&T and Verizon -- the Big Two -- are permitted to proceed with their equipment purchasing strategies, then the 700MHz Band will likely become a vehicle that speeds the wireless marketplace along the backward path to a duopoly," the group said in an April filing to the FCC.

The NPRM will also look into potential interference issues in the lower 700MHz block of spectrum, and AT&T welcomed the FCC's focus on interference. But the carrier questioned the FCC's look at interoperability.

"Some have argued that the technical and physical limitations of the band should simply be ignored, and have called for sweeping interoperability mandates," Joan Marsh, AT&T's vice president of federal regulatory policy, wrote in a blog post. "Such mandates would be an unprecedented regulatory intrusion into a carrier's right to manage network and device deployment in a manner best suited to serve its customers."

Mandates would circumvent the mobile standards process at the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), Marsh added.

Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski urged carriers to find a compromise before the FCC can act.

But Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the FCC has encouraged mobile device interoperability since the 1980s. It's time for the FCC to act because the mobile industry has had four years to negotiate a compromise, she said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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