A group of smaller U.S. wireless operators, operating under the "700 MHz Block A Good Faith Purchasers Alliance" banner, have been waiting for 18 months now for the Federal Communications Commission to issue a ruling that would require network and handset vendors to build LTE equipment that can work on all four different 700 MHz band classes in the U.S. Failure on the FCC’s part to put this requirement in place will have significant cost implications for these operators and for public-safety LTE network operators, these companies say.

While the universal use of LTE is expected to drive economies of scale, the sticky issue is the business decision of vendors concerning what bands to support. Right now, they are only supporting the 700 MHz bands that Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility operate in — which is different from the A Block 700 MHz spectrum purchased by a number of smaller operators and from the D block spectrum that is expected to be reallocated to public safety. Verizon acquired most of the FCC's 700 MHz C Block spectrum (which lies in band class 13), and many of AT&T's 700 MHz licenses sit in the lower C and B Blocks (which are located in band class 17).

In the past, the FCC mandated roaming between various bands, but it didn’t for the 700 MHz auction back in 2007. Why? “No one saw this coming. The two largest players (AT&T and Verizon) didn’t have the same amount of power that they do now,” said Eric Graham, vice president for strategic and government relations with rural operator Cellular South.

Of course AT&T, Verizon and large vendors such as Motorola and Qualcomm have made subsequent filings to say that including all of those bands creates technical complexity in devices and equipment, which could stifle development. Graham said that vendors have told Cellular South that incorporating all bands is technically possible. They just aren’t doing it because the higher demand is coming from Verizon and AT&T. Cellular South will be launching LTE in its rural markets but its service won’t be able to roam with Verizon Wireless’ and its footprint will be smaller than originally planned because of the cost, Graham said.

At any rate, it appears that smaller operators wish public-safety would weigh in more heavily on the issue, given the fact that innovation in the D-block might be stifled too. However, just today Motorola and Verizon made an announcement that will see Verizon extend spectrum and solutions to public-safety users with the ability to roam between Verizon’s network and the D Block spectrum.

“Public safety still needs to have access to commercial networks that can provide multiple, redundant backup opportunities,” Graham said. “They will face the same scale problems.”

Interestingly, the FCC’s National Broadband Plan recommends that the agency “should explore other ways to encourage the deployment of public-safety devices that transmit across the entire broadband portion of the 700 MHz band”

"The (national broadband) plan is clear," commercial operator MetroPCS wrote in its filing with the FCC. "Unless the commission requires all 700 MHz equipment to be interoperable across the entire 700 MHz band, the only system on which public-safety users will have a meaningful opportunity to roam or receive priority access will be the D Block — exactly the opposite of the result the plan is seeking to serve the public interest."

Still, the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, while recognizing that equipment spanning all bands would be beneficial to public safety, said that the commission should look at technical limitations before rendering a decision.

"The PSST notes that the technical issues involved in providing devices that cover all paired 700 MHz bands need to be well understood to make a determination whether to impose a requirement that devices include all paired 700 MHz bands," the group wrote in filings to the FCC. In other words, the PSST doesn’t want any technical problems stifling equipment availability for the D Block.

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