FCC chief lays out plans to boost mobile carriers' spectrum

The FCC is on track to add 300MHz of spectrum to mobile broadband by 2015, helping carriers expand fast services

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski detailed plans on Thursday to free up more wireless spectrum that carriers say they need to offer high-speed mobile services.

The agency is on track to make 300MHz of new spectrum available for commercial mobile networks by 2015, fulfilling part of the 2010 National Broadband Plan, Genachowski said Thursday at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. The FCC distributed the text of his speech.

Mobile operators have been clamoring for at least that much spectrum to fulfill what they say will be rapidly growing mobile data use by consumers over the next several years. CTIA, the main trade group for U.S. cellular carriers, has called for 800MHz of additional spectrum by 2015.

Genachowski's forecast included good news for most of the major U.S. operators, though it wasn't as clear for Dish Network, which is hoping to build a completely new network using fast LTE Advanced technology. He named several changes that the cellular companies have sought and said the FCC is on the way to making them happen.

The agency is on track to auction several blocks by 2015 in the AWS (Advanced Wireless Services) band, a key piece of spectrum for LTE networks. Among them is a band between 1755MHz and 1780MHz, where a commercial user would share the spectrum with current government users. T-Mobile USA has been advocating that spectrum-sharing plan and hopes to use the band in its LTE service, set to launch next year.

But first, the agency expects to sell licenses for a band that Sprint Nextel has been seeking to bolster its LTE service. The proceeds from the so-called AWS-2 H-Block auction would fund a nationwide public safety network and help to pay down the federal deficit.

There was some good news for Dish Network. Genachowski said he expects the FCC later this year to lift restrictions that have prevented Dish from using 40MHz of satellite spectrum for a land-based LTE network. However, if it follows through on the H-Block auction that Sprint has been clamoring for, the agency will have to move Dish's spectrum up by 5MHz. Dish opposes that move because the current LTE standard lines up with the band it already has.

Charlie Ergen, the founder and chairman of the satellite-TV company, said Wednesday it might take a year or two to get that change made at the 3GPP, the standards body that oversees LTE. However, this week Sprint told the FCC there is room for both carriers to get what they want if they cooperate, and that the LTE changes could take six months or less if they work together.

Genachowski also said he expects the FCC later this year to open up 30MHz of AT&T spectrum in the so-called Wireless Communications Service band for use with LTE.

Without giving any time frame, the FCC chief also noted his agency is "working with stakeholders" on allowing LTE in the "L band" historically reserved for satellites. That's where LightSquared has sought to deploy a controversial national LTE network. LightSquared, now bankrupt, had its earlier plans shot down by the FCC and recently proposed a new plan that would include a spectrum swap with the government.

The moves Genachowski laid out on Thursday should help build up capacity and keep several competitive carriers supplied with spectrum, said analyst Tim Farrar of TMF Associates. But the planning and building of networks is yet to come, he cautioned.

"No one's going to notice a difference next year because of what he's announcing today," Farrar said. Even the most immediate developments probably won't yield new networks or added performance for two or three years, he said.

In light of this, it's likely the FCC will hand out strict buildout timelines along with the spectrum licenses, Farrar said. When it approved Verizon's acquisition of spectrum from a group of cable companies earlier this year, the agency forced a faster rollout of the network to make sure the spectrum got used, he said. "There've been people who sat on spectrum in the past," Farrar said.

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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