FCC Acting Chief Committed to Finding ‘Solution’ to Interoperability in 700 MHz

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By Paul Barbagallo  


Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said July 19 that agency staff is continuing to work on finding a “solution” to ensure that mobile devices can operate on airwaves used by different wireless carriers across the 700 megahertz band.

In a press conference following the FCC's July open meeting, Clyburn said that while FCC officials continue to meet with representatives of wireless carriers in an attempt to facilitate an industry-supported solution, in the end, “there will be a solution.”

Advocates for device interoperability, such as smaller wireless carriers like US Cellular Corp. and C Spire Wireless, are hoping that Clyburn acts on the matter during her time as interim chairwoman.


Clyburn's comments put new pressure on AT&T to craft some sort of industry interoperability agreement with rivals in the band, analysts at Stifel Nicolaus Telecom Equity Research suggest.  



Over the past several years, many smaller wireless carriers have claimed they have stalled in their efforts to roll out the next generation of wireless coverage--4G--using spectrum they purchased at the FCC's 700 MHz band auction in 2008. In that auction, Verizon Wireless acquired most of what is known as the C Block, paying $9.6 billion for 108 licenses. AT&T Inc. 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 with spectrum allocated for public safety use.) As a result, 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. For these smaller carriers, to guarantee their customers seamless roaming on Verizon's and AT&T's networks, they would have to convince a manufacturer to make a phone that contains band class 12, 13, and 17 chipsets.

With Verizon selling off its lower 700 MHz spectrum, AT&T could be the most impacted.

Analysts at Stifel Nicolaus Telecom Equity Research said the chairwoman's comments put new pressure on AT&T to craft some sort of industry interoperability agreement with rivals in the band.

“If the FCC did impose an order over AT&T's strong opposition, we would expect the company to challenge the decision in court,” the analysts warned.