Lowenstein's View: Opportunities for the FCC to fast-track broadband, competition

Mark Lowenstein

There have been three broad themes to the FCC under Chairman Tom Wheeler, reinforced in his remarks at the recent CTIA trade show: more competition, more spectrum, and an open, non-discriminatory Internet. The significant items on the FCC docket that play into these themes--the pending AT&T-Direct TV and Comcast-TWC deals, the 600 MHz incentive auctions, and the ongoing discussions on network neutrality--show that the FCC has taken a lot on, and has had a lot thrown at it. An intransigent Congress and the upcoming mid-term elections are an additional wildcard that could impact how and how quickly these major items are addressed.

In the middle of all this, there are some opportunities for the FCC to fast-track certain items that add more mobile broadband capacity and expand consumer choice. An example of a "quick win" here was the March 2014 decision to make 100 MHz of spectrum in the 5 GHz band available for unlicensed Wi-Fi use. Memo to a gridlocked Congress: here's how multiple government agencies, the private sector, and an aggressive FCC Commissioner can come together and make something happen, with relative alacrity as these things go.

There are some additional 'below the radar' items that provide a similar opportunity for the FCC to replicate the success it had with the 5 GHz ruling. An overriding theme here is that at the same time there is a 'spectrum crunch', there is also a lot of spectrum that could be put to use, with some creativity and flexibility on the part of the partners involved, and the appropriate regulatory parameters applied.

1.               Terrestrial Low Power Service (TLPS). This is the FCC's proposed rules to allow Globalstar to open up 22 MHz of underutilized spectrum in the 2.4 GHz band for low power mobile broadband which would add a 'Channel 14' to the existing channels 1, 6, and 11 already being used for Wi-Fi in that band. The proposal is that this would be a "managed Wi-Fi-Like" service: a premium version of traditional Wi-Fi, providing dedicated capacity over a clear channel, resulting in as much as 5-7 times the performance of more crowded channels. Faster Wi-Fi speeds and greater capacity are a huge part of meeting consumer demand--whether it's OTT content options such as Netflix, the Cable Wi-Fi initiative, or the use of Wi-Fi by mobile operators to expand coverage, capacity, and improve the economics of mobile broadband. TLPS represents an exciting opportunity to offer consumers another competitive mobile broadband option that sits somewhere in between the "wild west" of traditional unlicensed services and comparatively expensive, but licensed, cellular data services. Given that Channel 14 is already available in Wi-Fi chipsets at the hardware level, the time to deployment is vastly shorter in comparison to alternative bands being considered for the broadband inventory. TLPS also opens the possibility for unique and innovative services, delivered by both incumbent operators and new entrants.

2.               Rural Broadband. While the United States is among the leaders in mobile broadband, fixed broadband is another story. This is due in part to relative lack of competition, but also to a challenging geography, where about 25 percent of households lie in areas where it is not economically viable to build conventional broadband infrastructure. Options for expanding broadband to under- or un- served households, using a combination of fixed and mobile technologies, are expanding. Some opportunities here include:

·       Push AT&T on its commitment to expand and improve rural broadband as part of the DTV deal. AT&T has already proposed expanding U-Verse as a condition of the acquisition of DTV, but the FCC can also 'encourage' AT&T to explore other options and technologies beyond U-Verse territory or where it can't be viably built.

·       Resolve the DISH issue. DISH is sitting on a wad of spectrum, and has been clear in its objective to add broadband, via wireless, as an option to consumers. But putting this spectrum to work, which involves some deal or relationship with a terrestrial wireless partner, has been in a state of relative limbo for years. Yes, this is due in part to Charlie Ergen's chess maneuvers and wireless M&A uncertainty. But the FCC could be more aggressive in encouraging some deal involving DISH and T-Mobile or Sprint, which to me looks more attractive and home-grown than Iliad or some other investor that brings little other than dollars to the table.

·       Take the next step with TV White Space (TVWS). The FCC has made a lot of the right moves with respect to promoting this use of unlicensed spectrum – making it part of the National Broadband Plan, and approving several high-profile companies, such as iConnectiv, Spectrum Bridge, Google and Microsoft, as spectrum sharing database administrators. The FCC needs to keep this moving along from trials to commercial services. The FCC proposed, in its June 2, 2014 incentive auction order and subsequently received comments on, to set aside a certain number of reclaimed nationwide channels TV channels for TVWS unlicensed use.  The FCC's order would remove some of the ambiguity of how that auction would impact TVWS and allow those channels to be put to work sooner. The FCC could also speed the equipment review process. 

3.               3.5 GHz spectrum for "small cell". The government currently operates military radar in the 3.5 GHz band, but the FCC has been looking at how this spectrum could be used by the private and public sector on a shared basis, with a certain set-aside for licensed operators. Although not as "low-hanging fruit", perhaps, as the 5 GHz initiative, there is an opportunity to use the 3.5 GHz spectrum to spur U.S.-led innovation in spectrum sharing technology (an FCC objective going back to the 2010 PCAST report) and cognitive radio for commercial services in this band. NTIA claims that ship-borne radar needs a 60 to possibly several 100 kilometer exclusion zone from the U.S. shoreline, thus eliminating use of the spectrum by most of the U.S. population. The FCC should be more assertive in determining through its engineering studies with private industry if the incumbent DOD radar is actually occupying the spectrum, and if there would be inference or not to the radar. The 3.5 GHz spectrum could be quite effective in providing a needed capacity boost in high-capacity areas, such as stadiums, convention centers, and college campuses, using small cell as an augment to Wi-Fi.

The 600 MHz "incentive" auction is the most significant allocation of spectrum in more than ten years, that if successful, will go a long way in adding capacity to over-burdened wireless networks. However, the structure of the auction is enormously complex and remains contentious. Another delay is quite possible.

In the meantime, and in addition to other FCC spectrum auction and National Broadband Plan initiatives, there are some opportunities, as described above, to put un- or under- utilized spectrum to work, in relative short order. Several of these initiatives require unique technologies/business frameworks (such as spectrum sharing) that would bring the U.S. wireless market to the forefront of technology and--dare I say it?--regulatory innovation.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.