Last week, Clearwire dropped its plans for an initial public offering and got $900 Million in funding from Intel ($600M) and Motorola ($300M). This may have a significant impact on spectrum policy in DC.
Clearwire holds licenses and leases for spectrum in the 2.5-2.69 GHz band, what we now call Broadband Radio Service (BRS). The BRS band (and its non-commercial set aside lesser cousin, Educational Broadband Radio Service, from whom the commercial folks lease spectrum) have never amounted to much, despite a nice chunk of spectrum and continued high hopes of the FCC and licensees. The band was poorly allocated in the 1970s and 1980s, and FCC policy has continued to “fix” the band just a little too late to get used for its intended purpose.
Most recently, the FCC agreed to a transition plan for the band geared toward the current nirvana of licensed spectrum: fixed point-to-point and mobile broadband. Also by this time, the once crowded field of commercial operators in the band has basically winnowed down to Sprint-Nextel, AT&T/BellSouth (assuming merger approval), and Clearwire. The remaining handful of operators have stayed pretty marginal.
Intel's huge bet on Clearwire, and its accompanying huge bet on WiMax, will have a significant effect on DC spectrum politics. Intel had initialy come out heavily in favor of unlicensed. Over the last few years, however, as Intel has chased the WiMax rainbow in search of a pot of gold at the end, Intel's advocacy has moved away from favoring unlicensed uses. To the extent Intel still backs unlicensed uses, such as the TV white spaces, it does so with an eye toward increasing spectrum for consumer devices rather than with an eye toward broadband services.
Last week's investment seems likely to complete this transition of Intel from a general supporter of unlicensed to a supporter of licensed services for any newly opened or available spectrum. Worse, Intel appears to be heading a block of manufacturers like itself and Alvarion that have one foot in the unlicensed camp and one foot in licensed (read WiMax) spectrum. Intel and Alvarion are part of a broader “WiMax posse” seeking to roll back the rules for non-exclusive use of the 3650-3700 MHz band adopted last year, on the grounds that the FCC's requirement for non-exclusive use and adoption of a contention-based protocol make the band unsuitable for WiMax.
Intel's gradual defection does not leave unlicensed spectrum without corporate allies. In addition to companies such as Tropos, that manufacture broadband equipment using unlicensed spectrum, Microsoft and Dell have become increasingly supportive of unlicensed spectrum as a potential “third pipe” into the home not controlled by a regional monopoly. But Intel's likely departure as as strong advocate for unlicensed spectrum outside the TV white spaces will certainly shape spectrum politics. With Michael Powell of the FCC and Michael Gallagher of NTIA gone, no strong champion of unlicensed spectrum remains within the current administration. Other than the TV white spaces, which remains open as a consequence of Congressional interest, not much is happening in unlicensed spectrum at the moment.
Nor is it likely too happen, without a strong push from the outside. While I have never advocated having corporations speak for us, I have certainly appreciated the extra muscle when they speak with us — particularly in a Republican administration. Intel's growing silence as an advocate for unlicensed, and gradual shift to the side of licensed, will certainly have repercussions for the future of spectrum policy.