The Rural Cellular Association has asked the FCC for a two-year extension to the build-out deadline for Lower 700 MHz A-block licenses – a band in which many small rural wireless carriers own spectrum.

To date the manufacturers of 700 MHz handsets and other devices have built products primarily for other 700 MHz spectrum bands, which are largely controlled by AT&T and Verizon. Small rural carriers have had difficulty obtaining devices for operation in the A- and B-blocks, which are in what an international standards group calls “Band 12,” because the volumes they can offer the manufacturers are so much smaller than those of the large carriers.

The FCC is considering imposing a requirement for devices operating in Band 17 where AT&T owns a large part of the spectrum to also operate in Band 12. But AT&T has protested that requirement, citing interference concerns.

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When a notice of proposed rulemaking about 700 MHz interoperability was issued back in March, some FCC commissioners were still hoping for an industry-driven solution, which has not yet materialized. At that time Commissioner Mignon Clyburn was more skeptical about an industry solution and urged the commission to move quickly on this issue, which she said had not been resolved in four years. But even her move-quickly timeframe called for a decision no sooner than sometime before the end of this year.

“Without access to interoperable devices, Lower 700 MHz A-block licensees have been significantly hindered in planning for, securing financing for, and purchasing equipment necessary to meet the June 13, 2013 deadline,” wrote the RCA in a press release issued Friday.

In the release, RCA President and CEO Steven K. Berry argued that competitive carriers “unequivocably qualify under the FCC’s standard that allows extensions when a licensee is hindered by causes beyond its control.”

Difficulties in obtaining devices operating in Band 12 appear to have driven C Spire to abandon plans to deploy LTE in that band – at least for now.

The Rural Telecommunications Group, another organization representing smaller wireless carriers, also advocates 700 MHz interoperability and extending the 700 MHz A-block build-out deadline, said Carri Bennet, general counsel for the organization, in an email to Telecompetitor.

“RTG supports a limited extension of time to allow A Block licensees to meet their build out requirements,” said Bennet. “This can be accomplished through a blanket waiver of the build out rules or a waiver on an individual case basis.”

Bennet also noted that without interoperability across both the Lower 700 MHz Bands and the Upper 700 MHz Bands, data roaming requirements are “gutted” and 4G competition will suffer.

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