Aloha Partners, owner of 77 licenses in the 700 MHz band, said it is poised to receive a waiver from the FCC that will allow the company to launch a pilot high-speed mobile data network in Tucson, Ariz., to serve the public-safety community.

The commission's rules currently prohibit Aloha from operating in Tucson because an analog broadcast station uses the adjacent UHF channels. Aloha, the highest bidder for UHF television channels 52 to 59 in 2002, is set to prove that its network won't interfere with the broadcasts because of its low-power nature. The company plans to test Flarion Technology's proprietary flash-orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) technology.

“I believe the FCC is going to grant our waiver for Tucson,” said Charles Townsend, CEO and general partner with Aloha Partners. “We're going to prove we can operate on the adjacent channels. The significance of that is if the FCC sets our precedent, a significant amount of spectrum would be usable in the U.S.”

With public safety clamoring to get its hands on 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band that is encumbered by television broadcasters and without a clear mandate requiring stations to leave any time soon, Townsend believes his demonstration will prove that public safety can find usable spectrum now by using channels that are adjacent to broadcast signals. By pairing channels 63, 64 or 68 with channel 69, they could find at least 12 MHz of usable spectrum in 80% of the country, he estimates.

While Townsend is aiming to set a precedent when it comes to usability of the 700 MHz band, he's also looking to convince public-safety agencies for the first time to place their trust in a commercial entity for access to badly needed high-speed data services. Aloha Partners' vision is to build out a nationwide broadband wireless network and offer dedicated access to public-safety users on part of it and commercial broadband access to rural customers on the other half.

“We've said we will build the network, we will allocate a dedicated channel to them and give them the ability to have higher priority in case of an emergency,” Townsend said. “It's an interesting idea when they don't have to put in a dime into the network.”

Flash-OFDM is gaining traction in the public-safety and commercial sectors lately. The District of Columbia earlier this year launched a pilot high-speed wireless broadband network with Motorola and Flarion using flash-OFDM technology, which edged out other offerings, including CDMA2000 1X EV-DO technology. The district's Office of the Technology Officer (OCTO) is making the case for a nationwide flash-OFDM network in the 700 MHz band to provide high-speed data services. Commercial operators worldwide such as Nextel Communications, South Korea's SK Telecom and Europe's Vodafone and T-Mobile are involved in trials of the technology, which Flarion claims is three times more spectrally efficient than CDMA2000 and is spectrum-agnostic, operating in interference-laden spectrum and transmitting data at average throughputs of 1.5 Mb/s.

“We at Flarion did testing in the lower 700 MHz band several years ago to show how well it does work in interference-ridden spectrum,” said Ronny Haraldsvik, senior director of global marketing for Flarion. “People don't realize how advanced it really is in the District of Columbia. It's working in first-responder vehicles and helicopters.”

Still, Aloha Partners isn't committed to deploying flash-OFDM beyond Tucson. Townsend is concerned about the proprietary nature of the technology.

“Our feeling is that Flarion's technology is superior, but one of the problems with it is that it's expensive,” he said. “We're hoping a carrier like Nextel buys tons of this so that PC-card cost comes way down. I think that will be a key component to who we pick for a national rollout.”

Standardization of flash-OFDM is under way under the auspices of the Institute of Electronic and Engineering (IEEE) standards body, but the standard — known as 802.20 — is still two to three years away, say analysts. Ultimately, the technology's success will depend on whether major commercial operators buy in.

“Standards themselves determine nothing,” said Andy Fuertes, senior analyst with Visant Strategies. “Support from major carriers matters. … If those types of carriers actually go with it, then they can easily define a standard, but that's if.”

Aloha Partners

  • Paid $43.3 million for 77 licenses in the 700 MHz band, channels 52 to 59, in 2002, covering 166 markets throughout the U.S. and 60% of the top 40 markets.
  • Testing flash-OFDM technology in Tucson, Ariz.
  • Goal is to target public-safety users and rural wireless broadband Internet users.

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