AT&T: We're committed to finding 700 MHz interoperability solution

Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn Wednesday convened a meeting with a variety of stakeholders, including AT&T (NYSE:T) and smaller wireless carriers, to try to find a solution to the knotty issue of interoperability in the Lower 700 MHz band, which has bedeviled the commission and industry for years.

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 Wireless (NYSE:VZ) 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.

Participants described the talks as robust and frank, and an FCC official said that the discussions were meaningful and conducted in a cooperative spirit. Clyburn's staff thought the meeting went well, the FCC official said.

The heart of the issue is well-known and the positions on both sides of the debate have been firmly entrenched for years. Since March 2, 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 (NASDAQ:AAPL) make equipment for AT&T's Band Class 17 and Verizon's 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.

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.

At the meeting, AT&T was represented by Marsh, along with Bob Quinn, AT&T's senior vice president of federal regulatory, as well as Hank Kafka, the company's vice president of network architecture. "AT&T appreciates the productive dialogue that Chairwoman Clyburn has initiated and remains committed to finding a solution to the interoperability challenges in the Lower 700 MHz band," the carrier said in a statement. 

According to participants, some disputes were narrowed at the meeting, and everyone seemed to agree that achieving 700 MHz interoperability would be a positive development for the industry, particularly in advance of the incentive auctions of 600 MHz broadcast spectrum. 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.

"Interoperability issues in the lower 700 MHz band have slowed mobile broadband deployment, made it harder for small carriers to compete, and limited choices for consumers," Clyburn said in a statement. "When the commission launched a proceeding in March 2012 to address this situation, we were clear that we would prefer an industry solution. But an industry-led solution to interoperability is only possible if industry stakeholders come together in good faith to discuss their differences. That's why I called on carriers large and small from across the country to come to the commission today to talk through these issues face-to-face. I am pleased that so many answered the call and appreciate the robust dialogue."

Clyburn has said she is poised to listen to recommendations from the FCC's staff and take regulatory action if an industry-led solution is not forthcoming. Participants said there will be continued engagement on the issue, but no timeline has been set for any kind of a resolution.

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