Next-gen technology heats up FCC broadband spectrum policy

robert syputa maravedisThe FCC National Broadband Plan (NBBP), which outlines the release of 500 MHz of additional spectrum for broadband services over the next ten years, has come under fire from Verizon and AT&T, holders of the bulk of coveted 700 MHz spectrum. While licensing rules for the 700 MHz C Block, in which the two will deploy their LTE networks, require open devices and open access for applications and services, the companies view pending new rules for Mobile Satellite Spectrum (MSS) as potentially unlawfully discriminating.

Meanwhile, satellite operators Harbinger and Globalstar have applauded the FCC's NBBP. Harbinger plans a $6 billion deployment that has the potential to parlay their relatively illiquid spectrum assets into a competitive hybrid broadband network. Globalstar, which has started terrestrial deployments of WiMAX through its partnership with Open Range Communications, sees the plans to further loosen use of the spectrum as beneficial:

"We applaud the FCC's plans to create an economic and regulatory environment that will stimulate job creation and foster development of the world's fastest and most innovative broadband networks here in the United States, and we are encouraged by their thoughts regarding optimizing the use of MSS spectrum," said Peter Dalton, CEO of Globalstar. "We are already utilizing our ATC authorization to lease satellite spectrum to terrestrial rural broadband provider Open Range Communications. We welcome the commission's view that the public would benefit if we and the rest of the MSS community had greater flexibility to use our spectrum for further terrestrial applications. We look forward to working with the public policy makers and our industry colleagues in a collective effort to provide Americans with access to the world's fastest and most innovative mobile services."

AT&T and Verizon each issued terse responses:

"The commission is setting a very disturbing precedent when it implies that it may use allocation of spectrum to manipulate the wireless market," Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, said in a statement. "This action is manifestly unwise and potentially unlawful."

"Both the bureau's process and the resulting restrictions are troubling," Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson told FierceWireless. "We are reviewing our options."

At the heart of the FCC's moves to make more spectrum available and to shift access polices is a revolution in wireless technology that is making otherwise unused/underused higher frequency spectrum the prime real estate to be exploited by enterprising operators.

Major factors shaping the issue:

  • MIMO-OFDMA NGN RAN technologies, WiMAX and LTE, render the heretofore of MSS and similar >2 GHz frequency spectrum as highly useful for wireless broadband services that are now coming into vogue.
  • The market is evolving toward more open access across common IP applications and services.
  • Wholesale of wireless broadband services is increasing traction among adjacent and complimentary spectrum holders and operators.  

Verizon and AT&T bemoan the open access rules placed on use of the C-Block 700 MHz spectrum they will use to deploy LTE services.  Regardless of the recent slate of proposed changes, the LTE operators have been faced with the revolution in open wireless applications and services that have threatened to denude their rich voice and messaging revenue streams. Further amalgamation of spectrum and creation of a vibrant wholesale access market further threatens to devalue the lofty price the two paid for ‘beachfront property' spectrum licenses.

The long term evolution of wireless chip and network technologies contribute to the fears of the two largest U.S. operators: Wireless chips will become increasingly capable of being used across disparate bands of spectrum, while radio access networks (RANs), will have the potential to more easily service multiple carrier bands cost effectively. This portends the combination of wholesale spectrum by operators on a more flexible basis, thus more effectively competing against the spectrum and deployment advantage of AT&T and Verizon. However, what often stands in the way is achieving critical scale of deployments and mass of subscriber adoption that is needed to fuel vibrant device and applications markets.  

Robert Syputa is a senior analyst and advisor with Maravedis, a research and analysis firm focusing on BWA technologies including WiMAX, UMB, LTE and Ultra Mobile Broadband. For more information visit or contact the author at [email protected].