For the wireless telecom industry, the main benefit of the Federal Communications Commission's national broadband plan is what it will do for available spectrum.
The FCC's goal is to make 300MHz of spectrum available for wireless broadband use over the next five years with the eventual goal of freeing up 500MHz of spectrum by the end of 2020. Of course, there is a finite amount of spectrum that can be used for mobile broadband, which means that the FCC will have to take spectrum that's already allocated for other uses and hand it over to broadband carriers.
In this article, we'll look at precisely what spectrum the FCC plans to free up by 2015 and examine where it will come from and what it will be allocated for.
Spectrum band # 1: Broadcast television
Total estimated spectrum available: 120MHz
The lowdown: This is sure to be the most contentious piece of spectrum that the FCC will reallocate, as the National Association of Broadcasters has already expressed skepticism that their spectrum can be reallocated without harming over-the-air broadcast quality.
Under the broadband plan, the FCC will work to reallocate the television spectrum through a combination of repacking channel assignments to reduce the amount of spectrum needed for broadcasting and through permitting two or more television stations to share a 6MHz channel. In the case of repacking spectrum, the FCC estimates that updating rules on TV service areas to make spectrum use more efficient could free up to 36MHz of spectrum. Meanwhile, permitting two or more stations to share 6MHz channels will dramatically consolidate the number of channels needed for broadcasting while still allowing stations to transmit two separate HD signals over the same channel.
From there, any spectrum freed up would be auctioned off to broadband users, with stations receiving a share of the proceeds. All channel consolidations will be voluntary, says the FCC, which means that bidding for the spectrum will have to be high enough to convince broadcasters that sharing 6MHz channels will be in their interest. Even so, the FCC estimates that the rewards from the auctions, combined with spectrum repacking, will be strong enough to free up 120MHz of spectrum, or 40% of the spectrum the FCC plans to open up by 2015
Spectrum band # 2: Mobile satellite services
Total estimated spectrum available: 90MHz
The lowdown: Mobile satellite spectrum (MSS) is being used by companies such as SkyTerra and Globalstar for satellite phone services in areas that are hard to reach with traditional base stations. Under the broadband plan, the FCC will encourage MSS licensees to accelerate their efforts to make the spectrum usable for broadband use through their Ancillary Terrestrial Components (ATCs) that the FCC required them to build in 2003 to enhance their satellite coverage. In total, the companies operating on the MSS bands have more than 1 million subscribers and the FCC would like to see the companies do more to push into the mass market for consumer mobile broadband.
Spectrum band # 3: The "D" block on the 700MHz band
Total estimated spectrum available: 10MHz
The lowdown: While the auction of the 700MHz spectrum band was largely successful when it finished two years ago, its one glaring failure was that it failed to find a bidder for the so-called D block of spectrum that had been reserved for the construction of a high-speed public safety network that would bring America's emergency response system up to date with next-generation technology. Once the auction ended, the top bid for the D block was less than half its $1.3 billion reserve price.
Now the FCC is back with a plan to get the D block licensed by holding an auction with several new conditions, including that the public safety network built on the spectrum employ the 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard; that the block licensee allow public safety officials to have rights to priority access to broadband services when roaming onto commercial networks; and that the network should "be subject to commercially reasonable buildout requirements." The FCC makes no mention about whether or not it will lower its reserve price to attract more prospective buyers.
Spectrum band # 4: The Advanced Wireless Services band
Total estimated spectrum available: 60MHz
The lowdown: The Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum bands have been on the FCC's auction radar for years now. The FCC will now work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to produce an analysis of the AWS-3 spectrum band's potential for broadband reallocation to be completed in October. Assuming the analysis concludes that the AWS-3 is ripe for reallocation, the FCC will look to auction it off sometime in 2011.
Spectrum band # 5: The Wireless Communications Service band
Total estimated spectrum available: 20MHz
The lowdown: The FCC placed certain restrictions on this band in 1997 to protect the quality of an adjacent satellite radio band. But now the commission is considering whether to lift those restrictions to allow mobile broadband onto the spectrum, noting that countries such as South Korea have successfully used it to deploy WiMAX services. The FCC's outline has no mention of when this spectrum will potentially be converted for broadband use.