The FCC plans next week to tackle a couple of issues that could have a big impact on the competitiveness of the nation’s wireless telecom industry. On the agenda for the FCC monthly meeting on Wednesday, March 21, are a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that could require interoperability in the lower 700 MHz spectrum blocks and an NPRM that would simplify the process of using mobile satellite service (MSS) spectrum for terrestrial use.
700 MHz interoperability
Interoperability in the 700 MHz band is something smaller wireless carriers have been asking for. Currently handset manufacturers have built devices that operate in Band 13, where virtually all spectrum is owned by Verizon, and Band 17, which is dominated by AT&T. Smaller wireless carriers won spectrum primarily in Band 12, which like AT&T’s band, is in the “lower” portion of the 700 MHz band.
Smaller wireless carriers say they are having difficulty getting handset vendors to build wireless devices operating in Band 12 because of the smaller volumes involved. Another concern is that roaming agreements are useless if one operator’s devices do not work on another carrier’s network.
AT&T has opposed the interoperability requirement, citing interference issues.
According to a recent Bloomberg report, the FCC is expected to side with the smaller carriers and to commence a rulemaking process that would likely be completed by midyear.
Terrestrial use of satellite spectrum
As policymakers seek ways of making more spectrum available for mobile broadband to address an impending spectrum shortage, one idea they are considering is to allow greater use of satellite spectrum for terrestrial use. Rules governing the mobile satellite spectrum (MSS) band already have a provision for what is called “ancillary” terrestrial use, but certain restrictions have made it impractical for that option to be used extensively.
DISH Network, for example, would like to use the MSS spectrum it acquired through its recent purchase of DBSD and TerreStar for a terrestrial-only offering, but the company is currently unable to do so because regulations require customers to use handsets that support both satellite and terrestrial communications.
The FCC recently denied a waiver request from DISH that would have eliminated the dual-handset requirement. But some industry observers, including Wells Fargo Securities, have argued that the FCC denied DISH’s request because the commission plans to lift this and other restrictions that have prevented the use of MSS spectrum for terrestrial services. Next week’s NPRM would be the first step in this process, which like the 700 MHz interoperability issue, would likely take months to complete.
It’s worth noting that the satellite band in which LightSquared operates is not part of the MSS band. The company initially was given limited ancillary terrestrial network capability to test out its terrestrial network concept and that capability has since been revoked.
To meet its goal of freeing up spectrum for broadband, the FCC also has proposed reallocating some underutilized spectrum currently in government hands for commercial use—and that’s another area the commission plans to address at next week’s meeting. As part of the NPRM involving MSS spectrum, the FCC said it would outline plans involving additional spectrum at 1695 -1710 MHz that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has proposed to reallocate from federal use.