FCC clears the way for AT&T to use untapped spectrum

The agency approves a deal between AT&T and Sirius XM that helps mobile broadband service avoid interference

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has voted to approve an agreement that will bring an end to a 15-year fight over interference concerns over mobile broadband service in the 2.3GHz band of spectrum.

The FCC's vote Wednesday will allow AT&T and other mobile carriers to provide mobile and fixed broadband service in a 30MHz band of wireless communications service (WCS) spectrum. The commission's vote approved a deal between AT&T, the largest spectrum holder in the WCS band, and Sirius XM, which provides satellite radio service in an adjacent band of spectrum. The deal revises technical rules for mobile carriers operating in the WCS band.

The FCC auctioned the WCS spectrum in 1997, but the spectrum has been in regulatory limbo for 15 years as users of nearby spectrum complained about potential interference. In recent months, the FCC has been pushing for an agreement, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

The FCC and President Barack Obama set goals in 2010 to free up 500MHz of spectrum for commercial mobile broadband and unlicensed uses within 10 years, in response to skyrocketing consumer demand for mobile bandwidth.

"For many years, we had a large swath of spectrum frozen and unused," said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "But this year, things began to thaw."

AT&T praised the commission's vote. "The era of regulatory dispute and uncertainty in the WCS band is finally drawing to a close," Joan Marsh, AT&T's vice president of federal regulatory affairs, wrote in a blog post. "We anticipate that the service rules adopted today will permit deployment of LTE technologies in the WCS band while ensuring that satellite radio services are protected from unreasonable interference."

AT&T took "real risks to develop this under-utilized band," she added.

In August, AT&T announced plans to acquire NextWave Wireless, a holder of WCS and other spectrum, for about US$600 million.

The FCC also heard a staff report saying that U.S. mobile carriers had met a Tuesday deadline to provide alerts to customers nearing their monthly limits on voice, data or texts and customers using their mobile phones in places where they would be hit with international data roaming fees.

The FCC began investigating mobile "bill shock" -- unexpectedly high mobile bills -- in 2010, and the agency worked out an agreement with CTIA a year ago.

All of the members of CTIA, a mobile carrier trade group, have met the deadline of providing mobile alerts in two of four categories: voice, data, texting and international roaming. In an agreement with the FCC, CTIA members committed to provide alerts for all four categories by April 17.

Members of CTIA include the four largest mobile carriers in the U.S.: AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA.

Until the alerts, it was too difficult for mobile customers to know if they were about to get hit with overage charges, Rosenworcel said. "How many people in this room know how many bits of data they have used so far this month?" she said. "Nobody should need to hire a lawyer to understand their wireless contract, and nobody should need to hire an accountant to explain their wireless bill."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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