700 MHz interoperability issue should have been on FCC's agenda

Lynnette Luna
Last week's data roaming mandate from the FCC won't mean much for smaller wireless operators if the commission doesn't also put in place soon the requirement that 700 MHz equipment be interoperable with all bands in that spectrum.

The new rules adopted last week require mobile broadband providers to provide data roaming on "commercially reasonable" terms and conditions. But in the LTE world, if one flavor of 700 MHz LTE isn't compatible with another, roaming is technically impossible anyway.

A little more than 18 months ago, a petition was filed by a group of Tier 2 and Tier 3 wireless operators working under the "700 MHz Block A Good Faith Purchasers Alliance" banner. The alliance is a joint venture among Cellular South, Cavalier Wireless, Continuum 700 and U.S. Cellular, and has been endorsed by the likes of MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) and Cox Communications. They want 700 MHz equipment to incorporate all bands in the 700 MHz spectrum.

Specifically, the group alleges that the two biggest winners of 700 MHz airwaves--Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T)--are essentially blocking competitors by issuing requests for LTE equipment that can only work on the 700 MHz band classes they acquired at auction, and not the band classes held by smaller wireless players. Unlike the past PCS and AWS spectrum auctions, interoperability was not mandated for the 700 MHz auction.

A number of smaller operators acquired 700 MHz spectrum licenses in the Lower A, B and C Blocks, which lie in band class 12. The 700 MHz Block A Good Faith Purchasers Alliance argues that AT&T and Verizon are using their size and weight to encourage network equipment makers to build equipment that only supports the 700 MHz band classes that they own.

Of course AT&T, Verizon and a handful of vendors take issue with the filing, arguing that incorporating all bands would stifle technological innovation and is technically challenging. These operators say market forces should dictate interoperability.

Meanwhile, Cellular South is building its own LTE network by the end of 2011, Late last year, the operator announced a strategic alliance with Samsung Telecommunications America for the vendor to supply equipment and LTE Band Class 12 LTE smartphones, which won't be able to roam on Verizon's network.

"We can't be competitive if we wait (for the FCC to act)," said Eric Graham, vice president for strategic and government relations with Cellular South, in a recent interview. "So now we are having to go out now and deploy a network that won't talk to Verizon's network, which makes data roaming a technical impossibility."

In a bit of good news for the smaller carriers that are part of the alliance, the FCC did announce a workshop on the topic it will hold in Washington, D.C., April 26.

However, the FCC should have addressed the issue directly last week with its data roaming order. Until the commission does, smaller operators--many of which are anxious to roll out LTE--will continue to sit in a holding pattern or be forced to deploy LTE networks that aren't interoperable. Meanwhile, Verizon will continue to deploy equipment that isn't interoperable either. And then where will we be? --Lynnette