Earlier today, at its monthly
open meeting, the full Federal Communications Commission took the first
step in in two separate processes that will, if done correctly, vastly improve
the wireless market for consumers. In keeping with its standard procedure, the
Commission adopted two Notices of Proposed Rulemaking, which will allow it to
solicit public comment and work towards two decisions: whether or not to
mandate that cell phones be able to operate in the entirety of one particular
wireless band instead of just segments (Interoperability),
and whether or not to free spectrum for mobile broadband use (Mobile Satellite Service).
Interoperability: Should Cellular Phones Work Across a Spectrum Band?
In the Interoperability rulemaking, the Commission will consider whether
or not to mandate that devices like cell phones be able to work in all segments
of the lower 700 MHz spectrum band. For reasons too complicated to explain
here, the 700 MHz band is very valuable spectrum real estate upon which to
operate a cellular network, and is technically superior to higher-frequency
This prized spectrum is mostly
controlled by AT&T and Verizon, although some smaller cellular providers
own slices. These small providers have asked the Commission to mandate that
devices made to function in one segment, or block, of the 700 MHz band be interoperable,
or able to function in all of the blocks. This request is motivated by a
reasonable fear that equipment manufacturers will not produce devices able to
function in the small carrier bands, and the carriers will be practically
unable to use their spectrum.
The Commission, will
determine whether or not allowing interoperability will cause interference
issues, and will decide whether or not to mandate
interoperability in the lower 700 MHz band. All three Commissioners agreed that
interoperability was an important goal, and appear poised to mandate it if
necessary, but all hoped that interoperability would be the outcome of
voluntary industry measures adopted before the Commission is prepared to act.
In his statement, Commissioner Robert
McDowell, the FCC’s lone Republican, extolled the virtues and superiority of an
independent interoperability framework over government mandates. Commissioner
Mignon Clyburn, on the other hand, cited the technical potential of the lower
700 MHz band and the fact that the “lack of interoperability means fewer device
and service choices for consumers” as justification for Commission action.
Chairman Julius Genachowski,
speaking last, expressed hope that industry would develop a standard, but
reminded those present that this rulemaking is being initiated because no solution
has been reached. Because interoperability in the lower 700 MHz band would
allow smaller wireless companies to more effectively compete with the two dominant
providers, Public Knowledge hopes that industry will swiftly agree on an
interoperability standard. However, given the absence of such an agreement, PK
believes that the Commission should act of such a development does not occur
Mobile Satellite Service: Expanding Mobile Broadband Spectrum?
In the second item on the agenda,
the Commission voted to work towards a decision on what to do with spectrum
currently assigned to Mobile Satellite Service (Mobile Satellite Service). This
“AWS-4” spectrum, in the 2GHz band, is owned by DISH Network and contains an ancillary
terrestrial component that currently lies unused. This terrestrial component is
unnecessary for the operation of DISH’s satellite service, and could be used by
other providers operating land-based mobile broadband networks. The revenue
that allowing additional use would bring would be a windfall for DISH, and the
public would benefit from the increased supply of mobile broadband spectrum.
As was the case with the Interoperability item, both
Commissioners and the Chairman supported the decision. The Wireless
Telecommunications Bureau, the expert division of the FCC that put forward the
idea of taking action, noted that it will address the possibility of division
of the spectrum at issue, technical issues, and will provide for consideration
of interference protection, but pointed out that clearing this spectrum for
mobile use would be a significant step towards meeting demand for mobile broadband
While agreeing that a market-based
allocation of this spectrum will produce an outcome that is better for
consumers than the current situation, Commissioner Clyburn expressed a
particular interest in how the reallocation of this spectrum will help rural
consumers, and how it will foster competition in the mobile broadband market.
She is right to be concerned: the public interest will be better served if a
broad array of companies are able to take advantage of the newly-released
spectrum, as compared to its being captured by AT&T and Verizon.