FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler late last week gave the other FCC commissioners a draft of rules that would govern the upcoming incentive auction of TV broadcast spectrum, which will be re-purposed for mobile broadband. Wheeler said the rules were created with rural areas in mind.
In addition to limiting the ability of the nation’s largest wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon to participate in the auction, the proposed rules call for spectrum to be auctioned on a partial economic area (PEA) geographic basis. The PEA plan divides the country into approximately 400 license areas and has been described as a “compromise” plan that aims to balance the needs of large and small carriers.
The FCC is expected to vote on Wheeler’s proposed report and order in May.
“The Incentive Auction is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand the benefits of mobile wireless coverage and competition to consumers across the nation – particularly consumers in rural areas,” wrote Wheeler in a blog post Friday.
In the incentive auction, TV broadcasters will have the opportunity to voluntarily relinquish spectrum and share in the auction proceeds with the government. The spectrum is in the low-frequency 600 MHz range – and as Wheeler noted in his blog post, that spectrum “has physical properties that increase the reach of mobile networks over long distances.”
That means fewer base stations are needed to build out a mobile network, which “makes low-band particularly important in rural areas,” he said.
Because “two national carriers” control the “vast majority” of low-band spectrum, “rural consumers are denied the competition and choice that would be available if more wireless competitors also had access to low-band spectrum,” Wheeler wrote. Although Wheeler’s post did not name the two companies, the nation’s two largest wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon are the carriers that have the most sub-1 GHz spectrum licenses.
Wheeler’s post did not detail how his plan aims to put more low-band spectrum in the hands of companies other than AT&T and Verizon. But according to a report published by Re/code last week, the plan calls for 30% of the auction spectrum to be made available only to smaller carriers.
Low-band spectrum also is important in urban areas, Wheeler noted. Low-band spectrum, he said “permeates into buildings better than does high-band spectrum.” Accordingly, he said, “with more and more Americans opting for wireless-only connectivity, they should not run the risk of being unable to place a 911 call from the interior of a building just because their wireless company has the wrong spectrum.”
AT&T already has protested the proposed limits, threatening to possibly sit out the auction if the limits are imposed.
Partial economic areas
The plan to auction licenses on a partial economic area basis is described in a fact sheet that the FCC made available to reporters on Friday. According to the fact sheet, that plan is designed to “permit entry by providers that contemplate offering wireless broadband service on a localized basis, yet permit providers that plan to provide service on a larger geographic scale to aggregate PEAs.”
Traditionally licenses have been auctioned on either an economic area basis that divides the country into 176 geographic areas or on a cellular market area basis that divides the country into 734 areas. The PEA plan represents a compromise approach.
Another notable element of Wheeler’s plan is a requirement for interoperability across the 600 MHz band. That requirement was not included in the 700 MHz band plan, creating significant roaming and deployment problems.
No unpaired spectrum?
The FCC fact sheet also states that the 600 MHz band plan will include paired uplink and downlink bands comprised of 5 MHz building blocks. To date U.S. carriers have deployed 4G LTE networks primarily in paired spectrum using the frequency division duplexing form of LTE. But Sprint plans to deploy an alternate form of LTE that uses time division duplexing in unpaired spectrum bands – and that carrier probably would like to see the 600 MHz auction include some unpaired spectrum.
Another notable element of Wheeler’s proposal is a requirement for interoperability across the 600 MHz band. That requirement was not included in the 700 MHz band plan, creating substantial deployment and roaming challenges.