2011 will be an interesting year at the FCC. Its recent ruling on net neutrality is being challenged in court, many in Congress are opposed to it, and the agency will have to prove why net neutrality is needed and that our current free market way of managing both wired and wireless networks is not working.
Also on the agenda for 2011 is the FCC's National Broadband Report. The FCC submitted it to Congress, saying that it will "find" 500 MHz of additional broadband spectrum, 300 MHz within the next five years and 200 MHz more in the next five years. Then there are the issues of broadband in rural America, or rather the lack of it, and the impending Congressional action on the 700 MHz D Block Public Safety needs added to its existing 10 MHz of 700 MHz broadband spectrum, and the issue of what to do with the AWS-2 and AWS-3 bands that are just above the AWS-1 band. The AWS-1 band has been auctioned and T-Mobile is building its 3G HSPA+ (which it is now calling its 4G network) in that spectrum band. Other issues the FCC will be dealing with include more mergers and its plan to auction some of the 700 MHz and 1900 MHz spectrum.
Any way you look at it, the agency has a very full plate and much of the action will be occuring in the next few months. The commissioners and the various bureaus will be very busy trying to sort out all of this. On its promise to find 300 MHz of additional spectrum for commercial broadband services, the FCC will have to work closely with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversees all of the spectrum controlled by the federal government including the armed services. Some, if not most, of the first 300 MHz of spectrum will have to come from the NTIA's spectrum allocations, just as the lower portion of the AWS-1 band did (paired spectrum 1710 MHz to 1755 MHz and 2110 MHz to 2155 MHz divided into six segments). To make the spectrum available within five years, the FCC will have to identify it this year, determine when it can be auctioned, how long it will take to move the incumbents on that spectrum elsewhere in the band, and who will pay the reallocation costs.
The FCC is considering letting over-the-air TV stations give up even more spectrum than required but on a voluntary, for-pay basis. I am not clear what it thinks will be accomplished by asking TV stations to voluntarily give up their spectrum because this could result in many different 6 MHz slices of spectrum (the width of a TV station's allocation today). If, for example, a TV station in New York gives up channel 30 (566-572 MHz), a station in Boston gives up Channel 28 (554-560 MHz), and Philadelphia gives up channel 22 (518-524 MHz), this will result in such a patchwork of 6 MHz spectrum slices that it won't be usable except in that given area. It would be better if the FCC would require another shrinkage or consolidation of spectrum. Today, TV stations (whose over-the-air viewership is about 10 percent of the U.S. population) are licensed on channels 2 through 52. If the FCC set a date and moved the stations above channel 30 lower in the TV spectrum, it would open up 132 MHZ of spectrum from 572 MHz to 704 MHz, all of which would be ideal for delivering wireless broadband.
The AWS-2 spectrum is paired (1915 to 1920 MHz, 1995 to 2000 MHz, and 2020-2025 MHz) and the AWS-3 spectrum (2155-2175 MHz, 20 MHz of unpaired spectrum) could be auctioned this year although there is still the issue of interference to paired spectrum users when adjacent to unpaired spectrum because in paired spectrum the cell sites transmit on one portion of the spectrum and the mobile devices on the other. With unpaired spectrum, both the cell site and the devices transmit on the same part of the spectrum using Time Division Duplex technology. As you can see, there are many spectrum issues facing the FCC this year and, of course, the TV industry led by the National Association of Broadcasters is opposed to more encroachment into "its" spectrum.
The FCC knows we need more wireless broadband spectrum to meet the increased demand for wireless broadband services and is trying to find solutions in many different parts of the spectrum. Generally, the lower the spectrum is in the band, the better it covers and penetrates buildings, therefore the more valuable it is. With the higher spectrum allocations, more cell sites are required to cover the same area, and in-building penetration becomes a major issue. How the FCC will find more commercial broadband spectrum is anyone's guess. Nevertheless, it is a priority at the FCC and you can be sure it is working hard to solve the problem before we run out of broadband capacity.
Another issue is how to provide wireless broadband coverage to rural America. It is a shame that most of the more than $7 billion in stimulus funds went for fiber-to-the-home systems and not to providing wireless broadband in rural areas. Wireless, especially at today's broadband speeds, makes more sense and would cover more of rural America less expensively than burying miles of fiber. There are many organizations and companies working on providing rural wireless broadband and this is also an FCC priority. Partnerships will have to be formed among various players and perhaps governments if we are to meet the goal of deploying broadband into our rural areas and I hope some progress will be made this year.
The FCC will be busy this year for sure, and it always takes longer to accomplish what it sets out to do because everyone involved has their own ideas, comments, and even the right to challenge the FCC rulings in court. I am not at all sure I would want to be one of the FCC Commissioners or even a bureau chief this year. Regardless of how hard it tries, the FCC cannot please everyone. While everyone's goals are to increase broadband capabilities, better serve rural America, and for the first time provide public safety with the spectrum it needs for a nationwide interoperable broadband network, not everyone will be happy with the outcome of the FCC decisions.
It will be a good year to watch the FCC, Congress, and the executive branch hopefully come together and find ways to make broadband more accessible to more of us and, hopefully, let the free market system continue to work as well as it has in the past.
Andrew M. Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide. www.andrewseybold.com. Andy will once again host his Andrew Seybold Wireless University March 21 in Orlando, Fla. The day-long event is co-located with the CTIA Wireless 2011 conference. Click here for more.