Large, Small Wireless Carriers Continue to Spar on Device Interoperability

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By Paul Barbagallo  

The wireless industry remains divided on whether new regulations are needed to 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.

In comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission, carriers large and small staked out familiar positions on an issue that will factor heavily in the agency's effort to reclaim hundreds of megahertz of spectrum for mobile broadband and similar applications over the next decade.

“The lack of access to interoperable devices harms not only competitive carriers' ability to acquire and maintain customers, but also their ability to invest in their networks,” wrote SouthernLINC Wireless, which provides voice coverage in Alabama, the Florida panhandle, Georgia, and southeast Mississippi in July 16 comments.

SouthernLINC and other smaller companies serving mostly smaller, more rural parts of the country have alleged that Verizon and AT&T are pressuring manufacturers of handsets, chipsets, and network equipment to make their products compatible only with Verizon- and AT&T-occupied spectrum in the 700 MHz band.

Absent FCC action, they argue, their customers will be deprived not only of the latest smartphones but also of the ability to roam on Verizon's and AT&T's networks.

“The commission has already determined that 'the availability of roaming capabilities is and will continue to be a critical component to enable consumers to have a competitive choice of facilities-based providers offering nationwide access to commercial mobile data services,' ” SouthernLINC noted in its comments, citing a 2011 FCC decision to require wireless carriers to enter into data-roaming agreements with one another. The one major exemption in that order, which is currently under appeal, is that a company such as SouthernLINC must offer service with a generation of wireless technology “comparable to the one it seeks to roam on.”

“The lack of interoperability in the lower 700 MHz band effectively undercuts the very policy goals the commission sought to advance … by enabling carriers such as AT&T to flatly deny any request for roaming from a 'A Block' licensee on the basis that it is not technologically compatible, thus severely restricting the roaming options for A Block licensees, most of whom are regional and rural carriers,” the company added.

A favorable ruling from the FCC will particularly crucial for the smaller carriers, many of which 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. And a number of smaller mobile network operators purchased licenses in the lower A, B, and C blocks. After the auction, 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. And according to people who follow the telecommunications industry, some manufacturers have declined requests to build phones and network equipment for C Spire Wireless, Cavalier Telephone, and U.S. Cellular, among others, because band class 12, taken by itself, lacks the scale necessary to attract vendor partners.

Interference Issues Still Loom Large.

But to Verizon and AT&T, the issue boils down to one of interference.

In rebutting the claims of smaller carriers, both companies argue that one of the underlying reasons for separating the 700 MHz blocks into different band classes is interference--the proximity of A Block spectrum pairs to TV broadcast transmissions on one hand, and high-power broadcast transmissions in the unpaired 700 MHz “D Block” and “E Block” on the other.

For Verizon's part, the company said the FCC could enable greater interoperability of devices by encouraging broadcasters on Channel 51 to relocate voluntarily in advance of so-called “voluntary incentive auctions” authorized by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.

The FCC could even offer broadcasters “first choice” in the relocation process and, for those TV stations that elect to participate in the auctions, a premium on their bids to sell, Verizon said.

CTIA-The Wireless Association agreed, noting that the relocation or exit of Channel 51 broadcast TV operations would play a “key role” in the resolution of the current interference problem.

“The presence of high-power television broadcasting so spectrally close to wireless networks poses a considerable threat to mobile broadband deployment,” CTIA wrote. “ ... The proximity of the lower 700 MHz 'E Block'--in which high-power transmissions are currently permitted under FCC rules--to at least the lower 700 MHz A Block also subjects this band to the threat of harmful interference.” Both are major concerns the FCC should address, CTIA said.

Focusing on the interference issue, a group of lower-A Block licensees, including Cavalier Wireless LLC, Continuum 700 LLC, King Street Wireless LP, MetroPCS Communications, Inc., and Vulcan Wireless filed a report on laboratory and field testing that they say shows that there is no need for a separate band class 17, as AT&T in particular has advocated.

“Based upon our measurements and quantitative analyses, we conclude there is no meaningful performance differential between band 12 and band 17 devices that can reasonably be expected to result in harmful interference,” the companies wrote. “The use of band 12 devices should not impact B, or C, or B + C operators in any practical way.”

The debate surrounding interoperability has been ongoing since the 700 MHz band auction in 2008. While the FCC took steps earlier this year to resolve the problem by issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking, the agency is not expected to adopt final rules prior to the presidential election.


To read the reply comments filed with the FCC, visit http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/comment_search/input?z=qglon and type in Docket No. 12-69.