AT&T, Dish, CCA cheer FCC's official stamp on 700 MHz interoperability deal

The FCC approved an order to implement a 700 MHz interoperability solution that will eventually give smaller carriers access to the same 700 MHz LTE devices AT&T (NYSE:T) now uses.

The order--which puts the FCC's imprimatur on an industry-led solution first announced in September--effectively settles an issue that had bedeviled the industry for years. It also represents a set of interlocking commitments and promises that will ultimately give Dish Network (NASDAQ: DISH) more time to build outs a network on the 700 MHz spectrum it owns.

For Dish, the order addresses interference concerns by modifying the technical rules of the 700 MHz D and E Blocks to remove the likelihood of interference. Dish agreed to reduce the power levels of transmissions on its E Block spectrum, and in return got an extension on its buildout requirements. Dish had asked the FCC to set a new buildout deadline on its 700 MHz spectrum that would require the company to cover 40 percent of the population covered by its licenses by 2017 and 70 percent by 2021.

The interoperability issue has been around for years. Lower 700 MHz A Block licensees have long argued that vendors like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) make equipment for AT&T's Band Class 17 and Verizon Wireless' NYSE:VZ) spectrum in Band Class 13, but not for those smaller companies such as C Spire Wireless and U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) that hold 700 MHz A Block spectrum in Band Class 12. AT&T, which pushed for the creation of its own Band Class 17, previously argued it could not support Band Class 17 alongside Band Class 12 because it would be too expensive and would cause interference.

However, AT&T in September agreed to reverse its position and support both Band Class 17 alongside Band Class 12. Specifically, the company said it will develop, implement and deploy throughout its network multi-frequency band indicator, or MFBI, capabilities that will let its network operate simultaneously in both Band 12 and Band 17 and support devices in both band classes. The feature was recently standardized but will require lab testing and field testing, the carrier said.

The company did not provide a time frame for how long this deployment and testing would take. 

"AT&T commits to moving forward expeditiously with testing the 3GPP MFBI software feature ... as soon as it is made available to AT&T by its RAN vendors," the carrier wrote in an FCC filing. "AT&T further agrees to fully deploy the new MFBI software feature in its 700 MHz network within 24 months of September 30, 2013."

If AT&T finds that deploying MFBI "will result in significant negative customer impact" it could potentially delay the rollout of its support for Band Class 12 devices by up to six months.

Plainly, though, it will still be years before AT&T rolls out devices that can work on Band Class 12 and 17.

Still, all of the interested parties praised the FCC and the other carriers for working together on the issue. "A critical prerequisite to the commitments made by AT&T is FCC action to harmonize the lower 700 MHz E Block, lowering permissible power limits to eliminate the potential for harmful interference," Joan Marsh, AT&T's vice president of federal regulatory, said in a statement. "We are pleased to see the FCC moving swiftly to address these interference issues consistent with the negotiated solution. The action the Commission takes today, under continued leadership by Chairwoman Clyburn, is a critical step to achieving 700 MHz interoperability that will in turn foster industry investment and deployment in the 700 MHz band to the benefit of U.S. wireless consumers."

The Competitive Carriers' Association, which worked with operators such as C Spire and U.S. Cellular on 700 MHz interoperability, praised Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn for her efforts and the final deal. "The Order sends a clear message that the FCC is committed to ensuring all Americans, especially those in rural and hard-to-reach areas, reap the benefits of high speed mobile broadband," CCA President Steve Berry said in a statement. "Interoperability will allow CCA members to build out nearly $2 billion worth of low band spectrum, which will help spur economic growth, create jobs and benefit consumers throughout the nation."

And Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen was also supportive of the measure. "We applaud the FCC, under Chairwoman Clyburn's leadership, for their extraordinary efforts in bringing the industry together to reach a consensus on interoperability, which is reflected in today's Order," he said in a statement. "Dish worked cooperatively with the Commission to help achieve the important benefits of interoperability and to unlock additional mobile broadband spectrum for the benefit of all Americans."

For more:
- see this FCC document (PDF)
- see this Reuters article
- see this PhoneScoop article

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