FCC chairman lays out plans to push 4G forward

SAN DIEGO--FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski continued to champion an open mobile Internet but also laid out plans to address some impediments to the rollout of 4G networks during his keynote address at the CTIA IT & Entertainment show.

The chairman said he recognized mobile broadband will be the growth engine of the industry, and the economy for that matter, and laid out a four-point plan to ensure the move to 4G goes smoothly. He also noted that the commission has not made any decisions regarding handset exclusivity deals and recognized the wireless networks are inherently different than wired networks when it comes to the net neutrality debate. Namely, capacity is a problem given the fact that spectrum in a finite resource. He invited carriers to "roll up their sleeves" with the FCC and work out a solution.

"We need this industry to continue driving economic growth and job creation," Genachowski said. "We also need to remain in global leadership. Increasingly, we need to rely on world class mobile networks."

Specifically, the FCC aims to release new spectrum for 4G and beyond as usage continues to skyrocket. "Spectrum is the oxygen of our mobile networks," he said. "While it's adequate now, the long-term picture is very different." The biggest threat to mobile is the looming spectrum crisis." CTIA made the same point in a letter to the FCC last week. While operators are building LTE in the 700 MHz band, that amount of spectrum won't be enough as experts predict an onslaught of data traffic, he said.

Part of that plan is reallocating spectrum and promoting more efficient use of spectrum, Genachowski said. "We are going to look at secondary markets and spectrum flexibility policies," he said. "We see benefits of unlicensed spectrum. About 40 percent of traffic in the home can be offloaded onto unlicensed spectrum. Femtocells offer promise as well and we need to incent innovation in these areas."

The second part of the plan involves removing obstacles to robust and ubiquitous 4G networks by cutting through the red tape, the chairman said. Tower siting restrictions in local jurisdictions are one of the large hurdles to rolling out networks quickly. "We heard your call," Genachowski said. "This issue is ripe for action. We are going to move forward with a shot-clock proposal to speed the process while working with local authorities." His comment drew applause from the audience.

This streamlining process doesn't stop with towers, he said. "We'll address roaming in a broadband world and look for ways to accelerate high capacity in the middle mile in both rural and urban areas."

The third prong of Genachowski's plan involves the open mobile Internet. "I believe it will be essential to ensure that the Internet remains open," he said. "The FCC adopted and enforced an open Internet, but confusion exists." Genachowski stressed that regulations must be sensible and flexible enough to offer ongoing evolution of mobile broadband. "My time in business has convinced me we don't want heavy-handed and prescriptive regulation. Wireless and wired internet access, I agree one size does not fit all .. There are real and relevant differences between wireless and wired. Managing wireless network isn't the same as managing fiber network. The rules will reflect that difference."

The last principle involves ensuring a transparent and competitive marketplace for consumers. To that end, Genachowski said the FCC hasn't determined whether it will ban handset exclusivity. "We want your input," he told the audience.

Immediately following Genachowski's keynote address, AT&T Mobility President and CEO Ralph de la Vega took the stage and defended the U.S. wireless industry's competitive positioning, saying that the U.S. indeed is a competitive market with 173 wireless carriers and one of the the lowest airtime price-per-minute ratios of any country in the world.

What de la Vega became most impassioned about what the recent spectrum purchases in the 700 MHz band and AWS band and the impact net neutrality rules might have on those investments. During the 700 MHz spectrum auction, the carrier paid extra for spectrum that did not carry open-access stipulations. If the FCC imposes net neutrality regulations, the move would essentially negate the premium AT&T paid by retroactively placing similar open-access stipulations on AT&T's network.

"The rules should not change after bidding is complete," de la Vega said. "These rules should not change now after the money has been spent but before spectrum has been put to use. What does this say about the integrity of the auction?"

Related articles:
Former FCC Chairman Martin supports net neutrality, but hesitates on wireless
Net neutrality push gains more Congressional support
GOP senators back off anti-net neutrality stance