Comprehensive Approach Needed to Meet Spectrum Demand, FCC Commissioner Says

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By Paul Barbagallo  

A combination of repurposing underutilized spectrum and using efficiency-enhancing technologies will be needed to meet the ever-increasing consumer demand for bandwidth-hungry smartphones and tablet computers, Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in a speech at the Annual Americas Spectrum Management Conference Oct. 23.

Clyburn, a Democrat, largely echoed recent assessments by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who has warned that auctions of spectrum alone will not be enough to solve what has termed the “spectrum crunch.”

“The sobering fact is that based on today's projections and technologies, the demand for spectrum threatens to outpace supply, sooner rather than later,” said Clyburn. “This issue is particularly acute in the United States, where networks are running at the highest utilization rate of anywhere in the world. The old ways of making spectrum available--clearing bands and reallocating--will not be enough. New approaches and policy tools are needed.”

Seeking More Spectrum Availability.

Aside from auctions, Clyburn cited spectrum sharing, Wi-Fi, and technologies such as “small cells” among potential solutions that should be part of the FCC's “all-the-above” approach.

Since the release of the FCC's National Broadband Plan in March 2010, the agency and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration have been working aggressively to identify and make available as much as 500 MHz of spectrum by 2020--300 MHz of that amount by 2015--for commercial mobile broadband networks.

The effort is seen as essential to the future of smartphones and tablets, which require significantly more spectrum to carry their data transmissions than what is needed to carry cellular calls.

Part of that effort, Clyburn said, is taking steps to remove “barriers” to broadband build-out, such as setting “shot clocks” for state and local governments to approve or deny cell-tower siting applications and streamlining access to public rights-of-way.

“While these may not sound like exciting topics to many people, they speed up broadband deployment, lower costs, and spur billions of dollars in private investment,” Clyburn said.

AT&T's New Cell Sites.

During a later panel discussion at the Annual Americas Spectrum Management Conference, Joan Marsh, vice president of federal regulatory at AT&T Inc., said the wireless industry already uses technologies to make more efficient use of spectrum.

For AT&T's part, the company in 2011 constructed 1,400 new cell sites and installed 80,000 new antennas, Marsh said.

AT&T also said the company makes more use of Wi-Fi “hotspots” to offload traffic than any other carrier in the United States, she added.

But, she cautioned, Wi-Fi is not a “substitute” for a mobile broadband network, but rather an “important complement.”

“Spectrum is an essential part of the solution to keep us in a [global] leadership position,” Marsh said. “We can plan to fail, but we can't fail to plan. Clearing spectrum takes eight to ten years…You hand a customer a more efficient device, and they will consume more data.”

Incompatibility Still Problem to Some.

Tim Donovan, vice president of legislative affairs for the Competitive Carriers Association, whose smaller, regional wireless-carrier members compete with AT&T, agreed that a proactive spectrum policy is essential.

“Spectrum is a finite, taxpayer-owner input,” Donovan said.

He noted, however, that the FCC should first ensure that mobile devices used in the lower 700 megahertz band of spectrum can operate on airwaves used by different carriers, including Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc.

Donovan said several members of the Competitive Carriers Associations have stalled in their efforts to roll out the next generation of wireless coverage--4G--using the spectrum they purchased at the FCC's 700 MHz band auction in 2008.

In that auction, Verizon acquired most of what is known as the “C Block,” paying $9.6 billion for 108 licenses. AT&T bought 227 licenses for $6.6 billion in the “B” and “C” blocks. A number of smaller mobile network operators purchased licenses in the lower A, B, and C blocks.

After the auction, however, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, an industry standards-setting body, created four “band classes” within the 700 MHz band--12, 13, 14, and 17. Band class 13 was designated for Verizon's upper C Block spectrum; band class 17 for AT&T's lower B and C Block spectrum; and band class 12 for the smaller operators' lower A, B, and C Block spectrum (Band class 14 was created for the upper B Block and spectrum allocated for public safety use).

Thus, all handsets, chipsets, and network equipment made for band class 13 are incompatible with band class 17 or band class 12, and vice versa. According to people who follow the telecommunications industry, some manufacturers have declined requests to build phones and network equipment for some smaller companies because band class 12, taken by itself, lacks the scale necessary to attract vendor partners.

AT&T has argued that one of the reasons for the 3rd Generation Partnership Project's decision was to prevent interference.

But Donovan said the problem will only worsen once the FCC brings more spectrum to market.