FCC ruling on 800MHz band a boon for Sprint

The agency removed a limit on channel width in part of the band, allowing Sprint and others to use 3G and 4G

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved a rule change for part of the 800MHz band at a meeting on Thursday, opening the door for Sprint Nextel to use the band for its 4G LTE network.

Sprint has frequencies in the 800MHz SMR (Specialized Mobile Radio) band that so far have been dedicated to the iDEN network, which delivers the narrowband 2G service that Sprint acquired by buying Nextel in 2005. When the FCC carried out a rebanding project several years ago to eliminate interference between iDEN and public safety radios, it decided that services on those frequencies couldn't use channels wider than 25KHz. That channel width can't support anything more than a narrowband service such as iDEN, which delivers average throughput of 20Kbps (bits per second) to 30Kbps.

At its monthly open meeting on Thursday, the agency removed that channel limit. Sprint had asked the FCC to make the change, which is significant for the carrier's 4G plans. Sprint has been planning to deploy LTE first in the 1900MHz band and then, pending the FCC decision, http://www.networkworld.com/news/2012/050912-for-lte-network-slow-but-259127.html starting in late 2013 or early 2014.

Radios that use the 800MHz band can have a longer reach than those on higher frequencies such as 1900MHz, letting Sprint cover an area with fewer cell towers under some circumstances. Rivals Verizon Wireless and AT&T have 700MHz frequencies for their LTE networks.

"Today's unanimous vote by the FCC paves the way for Sprint and other 800MHz licensees to deploy advanced 3G and 4G technologies in the band," Sprint said in a statement on Thursday. "Doing so will enable a better customer experience for consumers and a more efficient use of spectrum. Sprint appreciates the FCC's expeditious action to revise an outdated rule and promote broadband competition."

Sprint is already phasing out the iDEN network and expects to have one-third of its iDEN base stations decommissioned by the end of this year. It is replacing the popular Nextel push-to-talk technology with Direct Connect, a software-based system that can run on other networks.

The move is part of the FCC's effort to open up more spectrum to high-speed mobile data services. Under the National Broadband Plan published in 2009, the agency said it would make an additional 500MHz available for those services over a period of 10 years.

Also on Thursday, the FCC approved rules for the use of MBAN (Medical Body Area Network) transmitters for measuring and recording information about patients' conditions. Multiple MBAN radios could be attached to a patient's body, typically in a medical facility, removing the need to attach those sensors to external equipment by wires, the FCC said. The agency also adopted a Notice of Inquiry to explore the use of DACA (Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture) technologies to restore communications in the wake of disaster. DACA technologies could include existing aircraft, weather balloons and unmanned aerial vehicles, according to the FCC. If ground-based networks were out of service, the aerial systems could take over.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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