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National broadband: Where does the spectrum come from?

Broadcast TV makes up the biggest chunk, but FCC takes from other areas as well

By Brad Reed, Network World
March 23, 2010 10:27 AM ET

Network World - 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.

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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.

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