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A group of smaller wireless carriers launched a new coalition Sept. 10 to urge the Federal Communications Commission to finalize rules that would 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.
During a Capitol Hill luncheon, representatives from the Interoperability Alliance said rules are needed now to enable the spread of mobile broadband access, especially in rural areas.
“This is an issue that the FCC needs to fix, and they need to fix it this year,” said Grant Spellmeyer, executive director of federal affairs and public policy for U.S. Cellular, the seventh-largest wireless carrier in the United States by number of subscribers. The FCC opened a new rulemaking proceeding in March to consider such proposals, but has yet to act.
Spellmeyer said many wireless carriers 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.
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, which Spellmeyer says is not “technically possible.”
“Each device has a limitation on the number of spectrum bands that you can [access],” Spellmeyer said. “You have bands for international roaming, public safety. That's why it's so dangerous to add additional band classes. The more of those bands you create and the smaller you make them, the bigger the challenge is to get them all into one device.”
In comments filed in June with the FCC, AT&T pointed out that U.S. Cellular has announced that it will be introducing a variety of band-class 12 LTE devices this year, and it already sells a band-class 12 smartphone, tablet, modem, and WiFi hotspot. That month, U.S. Cellular became the only non-national carrier to begin offering a new LTE Samsung device.
“Certain large wireless carriers make a big deal that we're out there deploying [services],” Spellmeyer said. “That doesn't mean that there isn't a major issue here.”
“We've been trying to put this humpty-dumpty back together again for years now,” added Steven Berry, president and CEO of the newly renamed Competitive Carriers Association, which represents small wireless carriers. “The FCC was asleep at the switch when [the 2008] auction began, and they didn't think that the industry would decide to bifurcate and balkanize the spectrum, because it hadn't happened since the beginning for the wireless industry. But it did.”
According to Verizon and AT&T, the issue boils down to one of interference. In rebutting the claims of smaller carriers, both companies have argued in filings with the FCC 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.
But the Interoperability Alliance said that after testing nine devices to gauge interference with TV stations, interoperability is “technically feasible.”
“The attempt by AT&T and Verizon to inhibit device interoperability is really just another tactic to divide the marketplace between themselves, which has dramatically slowed build-out of mobile broadband in rural areas,” said Benjamin Lennett, policy director for the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.
The alliance, whose company members have been lobbying the FCC on the issue since 2009, will be pushing for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to finalize rules in time for a full commission vote at either the agency's Nov. 30 open meeting or Dec. 12 open meeting.
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