Part three of our three part National Broadband Plan series explores how the challenges in freeing up the spectrum needed to meet the broadband wireless goals of the plan

While the challenges involved with obtaining greater broadband availability on the landline side are largely related to deployment costs, the challenges on the wireless side include both deployment costs and spectrum availability. Concerned about impending capacity problems, the crafters of the National Broadband Plan lay out some fairly detailed recommendations for freeing up 300 MHz of spectrum within five years for broadband wireless use. The plan also includes a recommendation to free up an additional 200 MHz of spectrum during the subsequent five years, although its ideas about how to achieve that goal are sketchier.

In early April, the Federal Communications Commission issued several notices of proposed rulemakings and orders aimed at implementing various aspects of the National Broadband Plan’s spectrum plan.But the commission will face substantial opposition to several of these actions, particularly those relating to two of three proposed auctions.

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Auctions

The three proposed auctions involve a total of 180 MHz of spectrum and would be a key element in meeting the National Broadband Plan’s goal of freeing up 300 MHz within the next five years. The remaining 120 MHz would be achieved by re-purposing spectrum already in the hands of cellular and satellite network operators.

The largest of the three proposed auctions would involve 120 MHz of spectrum that is current in the hands of television broadcasters, who have had it for decades. The plan crafters would like to see broadcasters voluntarily relinquish some of this spectrum and as an enticement they suggest that broadcasters could obtain a percentage of the auction proceeds. The plan calls for holding this auction in 2012 or 2013, but the idea of broadcasters obtaining a portion of the proceeds is likely to be controversial, as the broadcasters never actually purchased the spectrum.

The next largest auction would be for 60 MHz of spectrum in the AWS band between 1755 and 1850 MHz. This spectrum is currently in federal hands, but according to the crafters of the National Broadband Plan, it is underutilized. The plan crafters would like to see this auction conducted as early as 2011.

The third proposed auction would be for just 10 MHz of spectrum in the coveted 700 MHz band. It would involve the D-block that failed to generate a minimum bid in 2008, when several other blocks in the 700 MHz band were purchased by AT&T, Verizon and others.

At that time, the plan was for the winner to build a network using the D-block and an additional 10 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum previously allocated to public safety to build a network that would be shared with public safety—and to which public safety would have priority access.  Since that idea did not work, the plan crafters now want to auction the D-block to a commercial operator that would only be responsible for building out the D-block. Public safety would get its own network in the 10 MHz of spectrum already granted to the community–and the cost of building that network would be borne by taxpayers. All 700 MHz operators, including the D-block operator, would be required to allow the public safety community to use their networks in emergency situations through “roaming and priority access” arrangements.

The National Broadband Plan calls for holding the D-block auction in 2011 but that plan could be in jeopardy, as a bill recently introduced in Congress would simply give the D-block to public safety. The public safety community has argued that its current spectrum holdings are not sufficient for its needs and that it requires the D-block as well in order to build an efficient network. Supporting that view is at least one prominent wireless industry analyst who argues that in major metropolitan areas, the public safety community would need more than its allotted spectrum on a daily basis.

If public safety were to get its wish, the cost to taxpayers to build the network could rise, however. The National Broadband Plan estimates a price tag of $6.5 billion to build the public safety network based on the idea that some of the network infrastructure would be leased from the D-block operator. Without a commercial D-block operator, taxpayers might have to cover the cost of building that infrastructure.

Re-purposing spectrum

Of the remaining 120 MHz of spectrum that the National Broadband Plan hopes to free up within five years, the majority—90 MHz—is currently in the hands of mobile satellite service (MSS) operators who provide mobile communications via satellite to handheld devices in remote areas. MSS operators include SkyTerra, Inmarsat, ICO, TerreStar, Globalstar and Iridium.

In 2003, the FCC adopted rules to allow MSS operators to use some of their spectrum for terrestrial-based service to enhance coverage in areas where satellite signals were attenuated or unavailable, but MSS operators have not made much use of that option.

The National Broadband Plan recommends that the FCC “take actions that will optimize license flexibility sufficient to increase terrestrial broadband use of MSS spectrum, while preserving market-wide capability to provide unique mission-critical MSS services.”

According to data compiled by the plan crafters, four of the six MSS operators have a total of just over a million subscribers combined for their service. The other two—ICO and TerreStar–do not have subscribers.

“The FCC’s thought is that while the spectrum will remain available and used at some level for mobile satellite service, terrestrial will be more important,” comments J.G. Harrington, an attorney in the communications practice group at Dow Lohnes PLLC who has closely reviewed the National Broadband Plan.

But Harrington questions how much capital the MSS operators would have available for a terrestrial network build-out. “I think for many of them, if they want to exploit spectrum for terrestrial services, their best bets are going to be to partner with other people,” Harrington says. “That’s the most likely path for them. They don’t have expertise in terrestrial networks.”

The FCC, however, wants to prevent the two largest U.S. mobile operators, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, from partnering with the MSS providers. The goal would be to foster competition in a market that those two carriers increasingly have dominated in recent years. But by drawing opposition from the telco giants, that restriction could hinder the FCC’s ability to quickly implement its MSS recommendations.

The remaining 20 MHz of spectrum that the National Broadband Plan aims to re-purpose is in the WCS band.

As Harrington explains, one of the issues with this band is that the FCC adopted “very strict rules for out-of-band emissions” aimed at protecting satellite radio services. The rules essentially required WCS operators to use wide guard bands, preventing them from using a substantial part of the outer edges of their WCS spectrum holdings.

The National Broadband Plan recommends modifying rules to create different power and emissions levels that will enable WCS spectrum holders to use a larger portion of their spectrum holdings, Harrington says. But he anticipates that there may be some opposition to this idea on the part of satellite radio operators.

“It sounds simple but it could be complicated,” Harrington says.

The next 200 MHz

Where the FCC expects to find an additional 200 MHz of spectrum within 10 years is unclear. Harrington believes the first step will be a proposed spectrum inventory that would determine the extent to which various spectrum holdings are currently being used. Congress is currently debating whether to raise $22 million to fund the spectrum inventory project.

Harrington argues that the spectrum inventory would be the FCC’s “best hope” for finding additional spectrum. He believes the commission also may determine that Americans don’t need the full 500 MHz that the plan calls for.

“It’s pretty clear that there is a lot of uncertainty about how we will get all the spectrum,” comments Harrington. “It will take a fair amount of effort and it may not come from places that have been identified today.”

Part One of this series looked at the National Broadband Plan’s ambitious goals and implementation challenges. Part Two explored proposed changes to the Universal Service Fund. will look at plans to free up 500 MHz of spectrum within that same time period to support mobile broadband.

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