Bloomberg is reporting that the FCC is expected to begin a rulemaking process by midyear that could require manufacturers of 700 MHz handsets to make those devices interoperable across all 700 MHz spectrum bands, including bands used by smaller and larger carriers.

The issue arises because the 700 MHz band is actually broken into four band classes. When the spectrum was auctioned several years ago, Verizon won most of the spectrum in the upper C block, now known as Band 13, while AT&T dominated spectrum wins in the lower B and C block, now known as Band 17, Bloomberg explains. Smaller carriers won spectrum primarily in the A and B block, now known as Band 12.

To date, manufacturers have focused on building fourth-generation 700 MHz devices that operate only in the two bands dominated by AT&T and Verizon. Although not mentioned in the Bloomberg report, these devices also work in other bands where AT&T and Verizon have earlier generation networks so that users can fall back on those networks in areas where 4G is not available.

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The Rural Cellular Association has been crusading to require manufacturers to offer devices that work across the entire spectrum band, arguing that it will be difficult for small carriers to compete if their customers cannot roam onto the larger carriers’ nationwide networks. Until now those arguments seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

As Bloomberg notes, major device manufacturers as well as their large carrier clients oppose such a requirement, arguing that meeting it would make devices larger and more costly and would reduce battery life.

Without device interoperability, however, one has to question the value of the FCC’s decision last year to require carriers to allow other carriers to roam onto their data networks. If the device that a small carrier’s customer uses can’t work on the larger carrier’s network, such a roaming requirement is worthless (although that hasn’t stopped larger carriers from opposing the roaming requirement).

According to Bloomberg, some smaller carriers have had difficulty getting manufacturers to build anything operating in Band 12—even devices that aren’t interoperable with the larger carriers’ bands. Bloomberg reports that manufacturers have declined to build Band 12 devices for C Spire Wireless, Cavalier Telephone and U.S. Cellular, among others, because the volumes of equipment they would require would not be sufficient to justify the build.

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