Bolstered by FCC, CTIA goes after jugular

Despite the fact that the FCC is moving ahead with open-access broadband provisions, CTIA still has reason to be tickled these days.

The FCC appears to be heavily on the trade association's side when it comes to the need for more spectrum to support the expected dramatic ramp-up of mobile broadband services in the coming years. Mobile broadband is set to be a significant part of the national broadband plan the agency is currently crafting. Blair Levin, head of a task group in charge of developing the national broadband plan, recently told telecom executives and lobbyists at a meeting of the Udwin Breakfast Group in Washington, D.C. that current spectrum holders should be prepared to defend their use of the spectrum.

As such, CTIA is going after the jugular of the TV broadcasting industry in requesting its spectrum and is proposing that all sorts of spectrum bands--including those owned by the federal government and mobile satellite service operators--be allocated for mobile broadband use.

"Any spectrum usage below 3GHz that has not been licensed in an exclusive, flexible fashion for commercial wireless service should be investigated for potential broadband usage," CTIA wrote in reply comments to the FCC about the agency's national broadband plan this week.

CTIA also said the FCC should look to reallocate spectrum bands that are adjacent to those used for mobile data services today, and that to take advantage of LTE and WiMAX technologies these bands should be bigger than the 5 MHz to 10 MHz blocks that are currently used. It argues the industry needs an additional 800 MHz of spectrum.

Specifically, the commission is urging the FCC to work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to identify underutilized spectrum bands and allocate immediately the 1755-1780 MHz government band for commercial wireless use and pair it with the 2155-2180 MHz band, which is already allocated for commercial use.

The trade group also criticized TV broadcasters, which it said can do a better job of managing spectrum more efficiently. "Recent media reports make clear that broadcasters must hold on to unused and underutilized spectrum only to profit from mobile TV and multicasting--not to ensure the public receives free over the air programming," CTIA said in its comments.  

Meanwhile, the broadcasting lobby has defended itself, telling the FCC that it is efficiently using its spectrum. A group of local broadcasters sent their own comments to the FCC, and said that arguments for reallocating spectrum from broadcasters to wireless are "anti-competitive or otherwise meritless."

"Consumers value video programming more highly than any other content, and a reallocation of broadcast spectrum could conveniently eliminate the wireless industry's most serious competitive threat--Mobile DTV," the broadcasters wrote. "Indeed, a spectrum reallocation from television to wireless broadband would amount to the commission picking industry winners and losers, denying the public the "triple play" of HD, multicast, and mobile while permanently locking broadcasters into a 20th century service."

However, it was clear that the FCC task force disagrees. In a meeting with the FCC this week, the group noted that as demand for broadband spectrum grows, the need for broadcast TV spectrum is decreasing. Specifically, smartphone subscriptions have increased by 690 percent since 1998, while over-the-air TV viewership decreased by 56 percent. Ouch.

Another industry that finds itself on the defensive is the mobile satellite industry. CTIA was opposed all along to the FCC's move in 2003 to allow MSS providers to incorporate an Ancillary Terrestrial Component (ATC) to give them another chance to compete after the crash and burn of several players in the late 1990s.  

ATC allows satellite providers to offer simultaneous satellite and cellular services over their licensed satellite spectrum, but the FCC placed what it thought was a key safeguard: satellite services must continue to be provided per the ATC order. A satellite operator couldn't simply use the ATC order as a way to offer terrestrial services. To date, Globalstar is the only FCC-authorized ATC licensee that has signed an agreement with a terrestrial provider, Open Range Communications, which is building a WiMAX network to serve underserved rural areas in the U.S.

"CTIA believes that a review of current satellite authorizations, coupled with an assessment of whether such providers are fully and efficiently utilizing their spectrum allocations, will inform whether this spectrum should be reallocated for licensed CMRS wireless broadband use," CTIA wrote in a filing earlier this month. The FCC reportedly is in the process of reviewing current satellite authorizations.

The FCC has recognized that refarming spectrum won't be easy. Lots of stakeholders will fight aggressively, but what I've seen so far is that this commission doesn't scare off easily.--Lynnette