FCC spectrum approach hits the mark
We should all pay attention to the FCC’s order [ET Docket 04-151] that removed many regulatory barriers of entry in order to encourage multiple users in the 3650 to 3700 MHz band and stimulate the deployment of wireless broadband services, particularly in rural and other underserved areas.
It’s important to pay attention, not so much because the order creates yet another spectrum home for potential broadband applications in rural America but because elements of the commission’s decision provide clues about future spectrum allocation policy.
I have said in several recent industry presentations that the FCC makes spectrum available in only two colors — unlicensed or licensed — with the latter option limited to only those (with the exception of public safety) who are willing participate in an auction. This order could force me to alter my remarks in the future. It sets no limit on the number of licenses that could be granted, but all licensees will be required to register their base stations electronically with the FCC.
This approach is intended to facilitate resolution of interference problems associated with unlicensed bands and to provide the commission with ongoing information about the use of the spectrum, as in licensed bands. Meanwhile, the order’s “contention-based protocol” requirements are designed to let multiple entities use the spectrum without “significant degradation of service.” It seems the FCC is seeking an approach that represents the best of both licensed and unlicensed worlds, with both technology and universal licensing system (ULS) registration requirements. The commission also did not impose any eligibility restrictions — other than the usual foreign ownership rules — and did not impose any in-band or out-of-band spectrum aggregation limits.
Maybe the FCC has found a licensing approach that just may work, but it’s too early to tell right now. At least one entity already has indicated that it will ask the FCC to clarify the interference-protection obligations for licensees. In particular, it wants the FCC to address whether earlier operators are entitled to protection from newcomers. Another entity indicated it has problems with the contention-protocol approach the FCC adopted. And yet another group is concerned about the interference protection criteria for its grandfathered stations.
It will take a while to resolve these issues, but I like the FCC’s approach. For enterprise business users who have an interest in this band, requiring everyone to register on the ULS where they are deploying adds some comfort that communication solution investments will not be placed at some future risk by unlicensed operations.
It will promote use of this spectrum and, as the FCC notes, “should facilitate cooperation among users and … the mutual obligation to cooperate and avoid harmful interference.” Doesn’t that sound extremely similar to the obligations of 450 MHz licensees?
I just hope the FCC doesn’t get frustrated with all of the incoming comments on how this new approach may not work and just throw up its hands and revert to the auction alternative. The commission should give this “not quite licensed, not quite unlicensed” approach a chance. Let me see: last in is responsible for interference, licensees are supposed to cooperate with one another and let the public know where your base stations are deployed. As baseball great Yogi Berra might have said, it sounds like deja vu all over again.
Mark E. Crosby is the president and CEO of McLean, Va.-based Enterprise Wireless Alliance — created recently by the merger of the Industrial Telecommunications Association and the American Mobile Telecommunications Association — which is dedicated to promoting enterprisewide wireless communications deployments.