About Face, About Time
While the rest of the telecom world shifted into high gear deploying broadband technology (or, in the case of public safety, locking down spectrum on which broadband service can be deployed), private land mobile (PLM) has spent the past few years narrowbanding its VHF and UHF systems. We’ve gone from already skinny 15 and 25 kHz bandwidth channels to anorexic 12.5 kHz and smaller. Whether this effort provided meaningful spectrum opportunities in the markets where it counts is, at least, questionable. Most of that theoretically freed up capacity was already in use in capacity-constrained markets since the FCC began licensing full power operations on the “offset” frequencies more than a decade ago. Narrowbanding was saved by the vendors who stepped up just in time, delivering digital products that meet many of today’s users’ needs for those willing to use narrowbanding as a justification for investing in more advanced technology.
Digital is a major step forward. For many enterprise users, it offers enough capability to meet their requirements. Heck, narrowband analog is the right solution for some licensees. But there are PLM users whose needs have grown beyond even digital narrowband. They need the features and functionality that only broadband can provide and they need it on terms that are not a good match for commercial broadband networks. American Petroleum Institute (API) and Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) have been tireless in telling the Commission about the broadband requirements of utilities and energy companies and their need for a broadband allocation. They have documented the purposes to which such an allocation would be put and explained why commercial service does not always meet their geographic and/or priority access requirements. They have done everything but tattoo LTE on their foreheads in an effort to get the FCC’s attention on this subject.
What they’ve not been able to do, at least not until February 28, 2014, is give the Commission a path that could lead to a PLM broadband allocation. In a joint letter to the FCC, EWA, API, and UTC proposed a “reorganization” of the 900 MHz PLM band to create a 3X3 MHz broadband allocation while preserving a 2X2 MHz block for traditional narrowband operations. The industry isn’t asking for more spectrum for broadband, and, heaven forbid, is not requesting more spectrum for “free,” that is without going through an auction. Instead, these organizations have proposed the eminently sensible idea of taking an existing PLM allocation and rearranging it to accommodate broadband as well as narrowband users. Since these three organizations collectively represent most 900 MHz licensees, including Sprint, which holds a majority 900 MHz spectrum position in virtually every market, they know how critical broadband will be for many of their members. They are committed to working collaboratively in developing a band reorganization plan that addresses the interests of all stakeholders and that provides a meaningful broadband opportunity for those who elect to migrate to that technology.
Change is inherently disruptive whether it involves migrating to narrowband or broadband technology. The PLM industry has spent decades heading further and further down the narrowband road. The time is right – indeed overdue – for an about face, for the creation of a spectrum home where 21st century PLM broadband communications needs can be met. The joint EWA-API-UTC filing is the first step down that new path.