FCC Battles Wireless Providers over Unused Spectrum

Published December 1, 2008

The Federal Communications Commission says the use of empty airwaves for taxpayer-provided wireless Internet proposed by the federal government would not cause major interference with other technologies, in particular wireless services offered by private-sector firms who bought adjacent frequencies in an FCC auction earlier this year.

The declaration is seen as the last step to bolster the sale of the empty airwaves at a federal auction next year.

Under the policy pushed by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, some of the so-called “white space” spectrum—frequencies that sit between analog broadcast TV channels in the 150 MHz to 700 MHz spectrum bands—would be used for free Internet service. This free broadband would include content filters to block material deemed inappropriate for children, while adults could theoretically get around the filters.

Martin pledged his support for use of the white space spectrum on October 15, and FCC was expected to vote on his plan on November 4.

Telecoms Push Back

Several large wireless carriers disagree with Martin’s position and a supporting report released on October 10. Giving away services on this band of spectrum, they say, will unfairly compete with their own broadband services on adjacent airwaves—for which they paid billions in a previous spectrum auction.

T-Mobile and other companies have filed an official letter of protest and are considering legal action to stop or at least slow down Martin’s plan.

“While we are glad the FCC engineers finally put their observations on the record, we have serious concerns that their analysis is flawed and relies on factors that were not the subject of the testing, while ignoring other important data in the record,” said Kathleen Ham, vice president for federal regulatory affairs for T-Mobile.

FCC Stands Behind Tests

FCC spokesman Robert Kenny said the commission has heard from all sides and stands behind its tests. He said the telecoms are worried about technology that is still far from a public rollout, and he said there will be “a rigorous certification process for any device before it goes on the market.”

“No one should ever underestimate the potential that new technology brings to society,” Kenny said. “Our goal is to ensure that the spectrum is used in the most efficient manner possible.”

For more than a year, several technology companies have been urging FCC to open up the channels, which would provide between 300 MHz and 400 MHz of unlicensed spectral capacity across the country. The firms say the spectrum can be used to create new ad-revenue based—i.e. “free”—broadband services for the public without interfering with licensed spectrum purchased at the previous auction.

Industry Wants Equal Footing

Joseph E. Farren, assistant vice president for public affairs for the Washington, DC-based wireless industry group CTIA, says FCC must do more to ensure any new auction does not favor those wanting to provide “free” broadband over telecoms who will charge for premium service after buying spectrum earlier this year.

“A fair auction is one where all bidders are on equal footing,” Farren said. “The rules [as the FCC has set them out] seem to give some companies a leg up. This is our primary concern.

“The FCC shouldn’t be in the business to of creating markets,” Farren said. “Let the market take care of it. The marketplace knows how to put that spectrum to the highest and best use.”

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.