T-Mobile, Verizon join forces on 600 MHz auction band plan

T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) joined forces with Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) to propose a band plan for the upcoming incentive auctions of 600 MHz broadcast TV spectrum. The partnership is notable in light of the fact that T-Mobile and Verizon have long been on opposite sides of the debate over the auctions, especially on whether to cap the amount of spectrum Verizon and AT&T (NYSE:T) can win in the auctions. 

In a letter to the FCC, T-Mobile and Verizon said any band plan the FCC settles on for the 600 MHz band should satisfy four principles that they have agreed on. That includes maximizing the amount of paired spectrum available for mobile broadband; allowing for the cost-effective and timely development of network equipment and end-user devices; facilitating a single 3GPP band class to provide interoperability across all paired blocks in the 600 MHz band; and allocating for supplemental downlink use any unpaired spectrum not needed to protect 600 MHz broadband operations against interference.

The carriers are proposing a band plan based on a 35x35 MHz Frequency Division Duplexing ("FDD") pairing--Sprint (NYSE:S) has proposed a TDD-focused band plan. Verizon and T-Mobile argued this plan will produce fewer design trade-offs and have fewer interference issues than competing proposals.

"Because our proposal needs only a single band to cover the 35x35 MHz pairing, both T-Mobile and Verizon intend to support adoption of a single band class through the 3GPP standards development organizations," the carriers wrote. "This will enable carriers to deploy wireless services quickly and will drive manufacturers to develop devices that work on all carrier networks and for all customers."

That last point is notable in light of the multiple band classes that arose in the 700 MHz band following the 2008 auction of those airwaves. Carriers have fought for years on how best to achieve interoperability in the band, and last week AT&T announced a compromise that, while it will take at least until 2015 to bear fruit in the market, is a major step toward resolving the issue.

Verizon and T-Mobile also said that their band plan will give the FCC more flexibility depending on how much spectrum broadcasters wind up turning over in the reverse part of the auction. "Finally, our band plan provides the Commission with flexibility under a variety of clearing scenarios, ranging from 120 MHz to 42 MHz," they wrote. "By keeping all paired spectrum above channel 37 and aligning the duplex gap separating uplink and downlink operations, the Commission can use supplemental downlink below channel 37 in high-clearing markets and above channel 37 in low-clearing markets."

Under the FCC's proposed rules, which are still being written and are not finalized, broadcasters will submit bids to relinquish their 6 MHz pieces of spectrum in a reverse auction where the FCC will pay them. The process is voluntary for broadcasters. After broadcasters give up their spectrum, it will be "repacked" so that broadcasters that do not give up their spectrum can stay on the air. Then the FCC will conduct a traditional "forward" auction in which wireless carriers will bid for the freed spectrum. The FCC's current proposed band plan calls for 5 MHz blocks of spectrum to be auctioned. The FCC anticipates that there will be 6 MHz guardbands to separate spectrum blocks used by carriers, and that the "white space" between the blocks will be open for unlicensed use.

However, a major uncertainty is how much spectrum broadcasters will be willing to give up, which is driven in part by uncertainty over how much money carriers will pay for those airwaves. Also uncertain is the timeline: The FCC has said it wants to start the auctions next year, but that could be pushed back given that the commission is not at full strength. Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman-in-waiting, has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, and neither has Republican commissioner-in-waiting Michael O'Reilly.

For more:
- see this FCC filing (PDF)
- see this FCC band plan filing
- see this Wireless Week article

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