• United States

Struggles over spectrum will bring great change

Jul 05, 20043 mins
Cellular NetworksGovernmentMobile

Spectrum allocation probably isn’t a top-of-mind issue for you at the moment – but you might want to start paying attention. Plans currently under discussion could dramatically affect the availability of broadband wireless products and services to corporations and consumers.

In May, the FCC adopted notice of proposed rulemaking suggesting that unused spectrum allocated to television be made available to wireless devices and service providers. These would include low-power personal portable devices, such as PC cards, and higher-powered fixed location devices, such as the wireless broadband Internet access base stations.

The advantage that such products and services would have over current technologies – such as Wi-Fi – is, quite simply, propagation ability. Spectrum in the TV band, which is below 900 MHz, is better able to penetrate objects than the spectrum in the 2.4-GHz to 5-GHz region (where most Wi-Fi devices operate). Remember, there’s an inverse correlation between frequency and distance – higher-frequency propagation goes shorter distances with the same amount of power. So wireless devices operating in the 900-MHz spectrum could go through walls, for example, that Wi-Fi devices can’t penetrate.

But “better than Wi-Fi” isn’t the real value proposition. If 900-MHz spectrum became reliably available across the country, service providers could offer functional broadband wireless access – bypassing the need for local exchange carriers (LEC). In theory, businesses could have access to low-cost, secure, highly reliable voice and data services without ever needing to involve the incumbent LECs.

Naturally, the idea of re-allocating spectrum from broadcast TV to broadband wireless is stirring up resistance from the obvious players. First are the television broadcasters who worry about the effect on their revenue. As Edward Fritts, CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, reportedly said, “We have serious concerns that the introduction of unlicensed devices into the television band could result in unforeseen interference in broadcast service to millions of television viewers.” (Translation: We’d lose our markets.)

Also predictably cagey are the RBOCs, which are smart enough to figure out that broadband access poses a threat to their death grip on the copper local loop. In a separate but related case, the FCC agreed to release 1.9-GHz spectrum to Nextel, the sixth-largest wireless company, in exchange for receiving back some of Nextel’s 800-MHz spectrum for use by firefighters and other emergency services, which desperately need it. Verizon and Nextel’s other competitors predictably whined about the federal spectrum “giveaway.” (I guess Verizon’s the only company entitled to government handouts.) FCC-watchers and pundits are predicting that Verizon et al. will sue the FCC to prevent them from concluding the deal – thus depriving the country of necessary emergency services.

But I digress. The real point is that despite strong resistance from the legacy users of spectrum, the FCC is dipping a toe into the waters of wholesale spectrum re-allocation. Even a modest move in this direction could have profound consequences for service offerings in the next 10 years. To see how, stay tuned.