Spectrum refarming for wireless broadband fraught with twists and turns

Tammy Parker, FierceWirelessTech

A funny thing happened on the way to opening up 500 MHz worth of spectrum for fixed and mobile wireless broadband. Reality reared its head, revealing just how challenging it can be to free up spectrum that is already being used for other purposes and hand it over to the wireless industry.

News that the National Association of Broadcasters is suing the FCC over its rules for next year's planned auction of 600 MHz broadcast TV spectrum has ruffled a few feathers in the wireless industry, though NAB representatives have stressed that they do not want to delay or derail the auction. They argue that in the recently released auction rules, the FCC arbitrarily altered the way it calculates broadcasters' coverage areas and populations served, which could ultimately diminish broadcasters' coverage areas and prompt a loss in viewership.

The NAB suit reflects ongoing frustration from parts of the broadcasting community regarding their treatment in the rush to dig up more spectrum for broadband services. There isn't going to be much of a 600 MHz auction if the commission fails to entice TV broadcasters to participate in the incentive portion of the auction, through which broadcasters can voluntarily relinquish some or all of their spectrum rights for cold, hard cash.

Meanwhile, the upcoming auction of AWS-3 frequencies, planned for November, looks like it will go off as planned. But the looming spectrum-coordination issues are incredibly complex. Chris Hardy, Comsearch's general manager, highlighted a number of those issues in recent blog posts and an interview he granted to FierceWirelessTech. Hardy points out that AWS-3 licensees will have to negotiate coordination agreements with 17 different government agencies regarding a stunning 2,500 frequency assignments.

And by the way, some of the existing AWS-3 spectrum uses cannot even be discussed publicly. "For example, almost all [Department of Defense] frequency assignments have restrictions on distribution which prevents their public release," the NTIA said in a recent document. That will certainly make spectrum negotiations and coordination all the more intriguing for AWS-3 bidders.

Also, as I wrote last month, the FCC's controversial proposal to use a three-tiered access and spectrum-sharing model to open up the 3.5 GHz band for wireless broadband use is not pleasing all of the people all of the time. Numerous parties are taking issue as well with other parts of the commission's plan to create the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS).

Regardless of the exact form the CBRS takes in the end, the fact that it will require the use of cognitive radio technology and most likely some type of spectrum database means the 3.5 GHz spectrum cannot possibly be employed overnight for wireless broadband, small cells or much of anything else for that matter.

I doubt anyone ever thought wide-scale spectrum refarming for wireless broadband would be easy. The litany of challenges that keeps cropping up highlights just how convoluted the process can be.--Tammy