Sprint, Dish clash over 5 MHz satellite spectrum shift

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Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and Dish Network are at odds over whether the FCC should shift part of Dish's MSS S-band spectrum by 5 MHz, a move that both companies said could have far-ranging consequences for their long-term LTE plans.

In filings with the FCC, Dish has been repeatedly urging the commission not to shift its holdings at 2000-2020 MHz up 5 MHz to 2005-2025 MHz. Dish has said doing so would cause delays in the standards-setting process and could lead to harmful interference between its uplink band in that spectrum with Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) and government operations in the 2025-2110 MHz band. Dish hopes to launch an LTE Advanced network with its spectrum by 2016.

The FCC is currently weighing rules governing the terrestrial use of MSS spectrum. Dish wants the FCC to grant it a waiver to offer terrestrial-only devices on the satellite spectrum. The final rules are expected by year-end.

Sprint, on the other hand, in an FCC filing released Monday said that 5 MHz shift would help its LTE operations by freeing up more PCS spectrum for auction. Sprint is currently using the 1900 MHz PCS G Block for its nascent LTE network, which allows it to deploy 5 MHz x 5 MHz channels. However, Sprint has made clear it would like to get access to the adjacent PCS H Block, which would give it the ability to deploy 10 MHz x 10 MHz channels. Wider channels result in faster speeds and more capacity.

In its filing, Sprint said that it still supports Dish's goal of using its 2 GHz S-band spectrum for terrestrial use, but that "realization of this goal must not come at the cost of idling the valuable H Block spectrum." Sprint said a 5 MHz shift of Dish's spectrum would allow the FCC to "auction the 1915-1920 MHz and 1995-2005 MHz blocks as a unit, which would provide more PCS spectrum for auction, increase the amount of highly-valued downlink spectrum available to bidders, and, as a consequence, produce more auction revenue for the United States than auctioning the current H Block alone."

Additionally, Sprint said that if the FCC shift's Dish's spectrum, "it could auction the H Block as currently configured and declare a 'guard band' at 2000-2005 MHz to separate the H Block downlink from the MSS uplink. Regardless, however, of whether or not the commission upshifts the MSS S-band, it should establish adjacent channel emissions limits for the MSS S-band that ensure maximum use and value of the adjacent H Block is not impaired."

Dish has said a 5 MHz shift would set back its mobile broadband plans for several reasons, most notably because it "would introduce substantial delay and risk into the standard-setting process, which in turn would further delay--if not possibly scuttle--Dish's planned deployment." Dish also recently said a shift in its holdings "is unnecessary to provide protection to PCS or G Block operations, and would not resolve challenges associated with the auctioning of the H Block, which are likely to be constrained by other factors."

Earlier this year the FCC voted to explore how the S-band of MSS spectrum, which the FCC has renamed "AWS-4," should be designed so that the satellite spectrum can be repurposed for terrestrial use. Dish currently owns 40 MHz of S-band spectrum--specifically from 2000-2020 MHz and 2180-2200 MHz.

The clash over the 5 MHz shift may seem trivial, but it could have major implications for the FCC's auctioning of additional spectrum, including the H Block. TMF Associates analyst Tim Farrar said there has been concern that the FCC could be favoring Dish if it permits terrestrial-only use of its satellite spectrum, and that a shift and the resulting funds the FCC would get at auction could offset that.

"It's a natural way for the FCC to go," he said. "There is a strong interest in doing something which results in concrete auction revenues."

Dish said in a filing to the FCC in May that it will not be able to launch its proposed LTE Advanced network using its spectrum until 2016 or later. This is about 12 months beyond the FCC's current proposed buildout schedule, which requires Dish to launch its network in three years covering 30 percent of the U.S. population. However, Dish has indicated that when it does launch its network, it will cover 60 percent of the U.S. population.

Dish, which paid $2.78 billion in 2011 for its spectrum in bankruptcy proceedings, has argued that the FCC's buildout requirements are not feasible and are not in line with similar requirements for terrestrial services. For example, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) have 10 years to cover 75 percent of the population using the 700 MHz spectrum licenses they won at auction.

For more:
- see this Sprint FCC filing
- see this Dish FCC filing

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