Apple opposed to strict FCC 700 MHz interoperability mandate

iPhone maker Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is not in favor of a strict mandate from the FCC on interoperability in the Lower 700 MHz band, according to a filing the company's lawyers made with the commission.

On Aug. 21, two lawyers representing Apple in Washington, D.C., Paul Margie and Tim Powderly, spoke on the phone with Michele Ellison, chief of staff to Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, and Louis Peraertz, legal advisor to Clyburn, about the FCC's 700 MHz interoperability proceeding.

The debate over 700 MHz interoperability has been raging for years and the positions on both sides are firmly entrenched. Since March 2012, the FCC has been pondering a proposed rulemaking that would promote interoperability in the Lower 700 MHz band. Lower A Block licensees have argued that vendors like Apple make equipment for AT&T's (NYSE:T) Band Class 17 and Verizon Wireless' (NYSE:VZ) spectrum in Band Class 13, but not for those smaller companies that hold 700 MHz A Block spectrum in Band Class 12. AT&T, the operator that helped drive creation of Band Class 17, asserts the new band was necessary to prevent interference issues from digital television (DTV) channel 51 and high-power operations in the Lower E Block. Lower A Block licensees are urging the commission to require hardware makers like Apple support all three bands in their devices.

AT&T has argued that an interoperability mandate is unnecessary, unprecedented, and would add to the cost of devices. Further, AT&T has argued that a mandate will not solve the problem with the channel 51 interference, according to a June blog post from Joan Marsh, vice president of federal regulatory for AT&T.

In the filing, the Apple lawyers wrote that an FCC mandate that lower 700 MHz devices include LTE Band 12 support "would be problematic." The lawyers said that any mandate should be flexible and not be tied to existing devices in the market.

"We also observed that device manufacturers would require a substantial period of time to comply with such a requirement; that any mandate should provide manufacturers with technical flexibility to achieve interoperability rather than prescribing specific technical approaches; and that any mandate should recognize that many existing devices are capable of operating in the Lower 700 MHz band today, and should not require manufacturers to alter these existing devices," they wrote.

Apple's response is notable considering King Street Wireless, which is U.S. Cellular's spectrum partner, specifically called out Apple's iPhone in its arguments for 700 MHz interoperability. King Street recently argued that without an interoperability mandate, U.S. Cellular won't be able to offer an iPhone that works over the companies' 700 MHz spectrum. U.S. Cellular has said it will sell an iPhone later this year, but must first refarm its 850 MHz spectrum and launch LTE in Band 5. 

Clyburn convened a meeting in late July at the FCC with a variety of stakeholders, including AT&T and smaller wireless carriers, to try to find a solution to the knotty issue of 700 MHz interoperability. The meeting, which participants described as productive and well-attended, last several hours, according to one of the participants, who was there representing a smaller carrier. According to the participant, there were representatives from AT&T, Verizon and Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), as well as those from Lower A Block licensees U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM), C Spire Wireless and Vulcan Wireless. Gigi Sohn, the president of public interest group Public Knowledge, was also present.

According to participants in the meeting, a continuing point of contention is whether channel 51 broadcasters need to be cleared before any attempt is made at interoperability. A key dispute is whether and how much channel 51 broadcasters pose an interference risk to a unified Band Class 12; AT&T believes there is substantial risk and the Lower A Block licensees do not.

It's unclear what exactly the FCC will do on the issue. The commission continues to hold discussions on the topic, but has not indicated whether it will rule, and if so how.

For more:
- see this FCC filing (PDF)

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