FCC Proposes New Broadband Spectrum for Small Cell, Shared Use

By J. Bradford Currier, Marc Martin, and Marty Stern

New spectrum may become available for shared, small cell broadband use in a new a “Citizens Broadband Service” under a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking recently released by the Federal Communication Commission. The proposal would reallocate 100 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz Band for shared use using small cell technologies and implements recommendations made earlier this year by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The FCC stated that increased spectrum sharing is necessary as demand for wireless broadband outpaces the availability of new spectrum. The FCC seeks comment on the structure and implementation of the Citizens Broadband Service and whether adjacent spectrum should be included in the proposal to create a larger contiguous spectrum block.

The proposed rules would authorize small cell broadband systems using low-power wireless base stations that are designed to cover targeted indoor or localized outdoor areas, such as homes, stadiums, shopping malls, and hospitals. The FCC noted that small cell stations can be easily deployed at relatively low cost to greatly increase data capacity and fill in coverage gaps created by buildings and terrain. Building on the TV White Spaces model, incumbent users would be protected through the use of geolocational databases that would allow spectrum sharing in geographic areas where incumbent systems are not operating.

The FCC’s proposal would divide spectrum users into three tiers. First, the Incumbent Access tier would include authorized federal users and incumbent satellite licensees. These incumbents would be afforded protection from all other users in the 3.5 GHz Band. Second, the Protected Access tier would include critical-use facilities, such as hospitals, utilities, government facilities, and public safety entities that would be ensured access to a portion of the spectrum in certain designated locations. Third, the General Authorized Access tier would include all other users, including consumer and business users, wireless ISPs, and licensed commercial wireless providers, all of whom would operate in the 3.5 GHz Band subject to protections for the other tiers. The FCC seeks comment on a number of issues, including whether the General Access Tier should be subject to a light licensing regime similar to a registration requirement, potential interference mitigation techniques, and details on the geolocational database and how it will regulate access to the band.

Wireless broadband providers praised the FCC’s proposal, stating that spectrum sharing will enable increased coverage in rural and underserved areas and provide start-up companies with a testing ground for new technologies. Supporters of unlicensed spectrum use suggest that available interference mitigation techniques will ensure that incumbent users and critical care facilities can be protected, while opening up additional spectrum for commercial and public use. However, in reports earlier this Fall on opening up the 3.5 GHz band to unlicensed use, industry observers noted that spectrum sharing in the 3.5 GHz Band poses a number of technical challenges for commercial wireless providers that may take years to resolve before the spectrum can be deployed as an adjunct to their core wireless services.

Comments on the proposal are due by February 20, 2012, with reply comments due by March 22, 2013.

First White Spaces Database and Device Approved by FCC

By J. Bradford Currier, Marc Martin, and Marty Stern

In a move that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski called “an important step towards enabling a new wave of wireless innovation,” the FCC approved the first-ever television White Spaces database and compatible device. Spectrum Bridge will operate the new White Spaces database and is authorized to begin service on January 26, 2012. Koos Technical Services received FCC approval to sell products authorized to operate within the White Spaces on an unlicensed basis.

White Spaces, sometimes referred to as “Wi-Fi on steroids” or “Super Wi-Fi,” consist of unused spectrum between licensed broadcast television stations. White Spaces devices operate on lower frequencies than normal Wi-Fi devices, allowing for better signal penetration into building interiors. White Spaces proponents suggest that unlocking White Spaces for unlicensed use will lead to an expansion in low-cost wireless Internet access options, an increase in public Internet “hotspots,” and improved connectivity for smart grids designed to make energy consumption more efficient.

In addition to Spectrum Bridge, the FCC has conditionally designated a number of entities as White Space database administrators that must receive final FCC authorization after a 45-day public trial before commencing commercial service. One such company, Telcordia, is in its public trial now and its White Spaces database can be accessed by clicking here. Under the FCC’s rules, authorized White Spaces devices must connect to an authorized White Spaces database, securely transmitting their location information, in order to receive a list of nearby unoccupied channels available for use. White Spaces devices, utilizing the authorized database, are required to protect a number of licensed services included in the database from potential interference, particularly broadcast television stations. Wireless microphone users and operators of temporary broadcast auxiliary service links will need to register their sites with the White Spaces databases in order to receive protection.

Spectrum Bridge will be initially limited to covering the Wilmington, North Carolina metropolitan area. The FCC placed the geographic limitation on Spectrum Bridge’s authorization after initial testing uncovered issues with database registration by a number of entities, which Spectrum Bridge promised to correct before it begins full operations.

Public interest groups hailed the FCC’s announcement, claiming that unlicensed White Spaces use will spur innovation and create jobs in the tech industry. While the scope of the new White Space plan remains limited for now, broadcasters have continued voicing concerns that White Spaces use interferes with their digital and high definition signals, and unfairly restricts broadcasters’ spectrum footprint.

It remains to be seen how White Spaces will fair in spectrum reform legislation that is currently being considered by Congress. The spectrum reform language was expected to be passed as part of the year-end payroll tax extension legislation, but was not included in the final two-month deal. The House version of the spectrum legislation would prevent certain auctioned spectrum from being used for unlicensed wireless services, over the objection of House Democrats and tech interests. If spectrum reform is passed as part of a one-year tax extension deal, there is some question as to whether White Spaces will be preserved in some form in the final bill. Reports indicate that today’s announcement will be the first of many White Spaces database and device authorizations, setting the stage for a major increase in unlicensed wireless service nationwide – assuming Congress can reach a compromise that preserves White Spaces in the pending spectrum reform legislation.

D Block Auction Bill a Casualty of Debt Ceiling Deal

By Marc Martin and Marty Stern

The debt ceiling deal reached over the weekend between the White House and Congressional leaders omitted provisions authorizing incentive auctions for broadcast spectrum and funding for a “D Block” public safety network.  Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), proposed a bill earlier in the week as part of the debt-ceiling debate authorizing the auction of broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband to help fund an interoperable public safety network.  According to the bill’s supporters, the spectrum auctions would have raised up to $15 billion in federal revenue, with participating broadcasters allowed to share in auction proceeds.

The omission of spectrum-related legislation comes as a surprise to many observers who labeled spectrum auctions a “slam dunk” in any future debt agreement.   For many years, FCC spectrum auction authority has been included in broader budget bills. But Sen. Reid’s proposal encountered strong opposition following its introduction from broadcast groups worried that the legislation provided too few protections for broadcasters from the involuntary repacking of television broadcast spectrum.  A number of Members also expressed concern that the debt ceiling debate was not the appropriate forum to consider spectrum reform.  The growing resistance, combined with the impending August 2nd debt ceiling deadline, led Sen. Reid and House Majority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) to drop the spectrum auction provision from the debt ceiling legislation.

As a result, FCC authority to auction broadcast spectrum will likely be taken up in stand-alone legislation during the coming months.  It is unlikely any stand-alone bill would have an easy path to enactment. There were already House and Senate D block auction bills at odds with each other over the extent of broadcaster protections, whether the public safety network should receive public funding or private support by commercial mobile operators, and the possible use of broadcast “White Spaces” for unlicensed “Super Wifi” devices.

Spectrum Auction Legislation Passes Senate Commerce Committee

With wireless Internet traffic expected to increase 26-fold over the next few years, the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday approved the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act, sending the divisive legislation on to the full Senate for consideration. The bill further stokes the ongoing battle across industry sectors over how best to apportion spectrum and who should bear the burden of reallocation, addressing in one bill issues surrounding both the public safety D-Block spectrum and broadcast spectrum reallocation.

The cornerstone of the new legislation is the establishment of controversial “incentive auctions,” where television broadcasters and other licensees will voluntarily cede some of their existing spectrum inventory to the FCC in exchange for a share of the auction proceeds. The Act would also compensate broadcasters that retain their spectrum but agree to be “repacked” to adjacent channels, potentially freeing up new swaths of spectrum for public use. Auction income would be used to fund the construction and maintenance of a nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety services. Any surplus revenue obtained from the auctions would go to the U.S. Treasury targeted for deficit reduction. The Act further allocates 10 megahertz of spectrum known as the D-Block for the creation of the public safety broadband network and would permit public safety officials to lease capacity on their network subject to certain restrictions.

Lawmakers proposed nearly 100 amendments designed to address a number of unresolved issues present in the legislation, and the future of the legislation is uncertain. Critics contend that the D-Block spectrum should be auctioned to commercial broadband providers as required by current law. According to the Act’s detractors, commercial providers remain better equipped to rapidly develop wireless networks which could then be shared with public safety organizations. Experts have already voiced concerns that the financial strains placed on local governments will limit the funding to public service organizations necessary to build out broadband networks. Opponents of the bill noted that nearly $13 billion in federal funds and 100 megahertz of spectrum has already been allocated to public safety with no development of an interoperable network. By auctioning the D-Block, the FCC would give private industry the incentive to develop robust wireless networks, especially in rural areas.

Some industry observers question the government’s estimates of the revenue expected from the incentive auctions, arguing current valuations overestimate the amount of participating broadcasters and the value of available spectrum. Broadcasters and other spectrum holders also charge satellite television and wireless carriers with amassing large quantities of unused spectrum and have argued that Congress should require an inventory of current spectrum use before going forward with the incentive auction plan. Reports suggest that future wireless demands may be met through existing technology such as antennae designed to transmit signals more efficiently and small area “femtocell” networks, which can offload wireless network traffic to a wired network installed in a home or office. The FCC’s “repacking” plan could lead to a domino effect of interference issues as relocated channels interfere with stations in neighboring markets. Spectrum innovators have urged that TV White Spaces technologies, newly emerging unlicensed devices and networks that use vacant broadcast channels, would be foreclosed by the reallocation and repacking of broadcast spectrum. An amendment to the bill by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), which allows the use of auction funds to maintain portions of spectrum for unlicensed public use, is said to potentially address some of these concerns and drew praise from public interest groups. Many lawmakers and broadcasters have also argued that the voluntary incentive auctions will eventually transform into an FCC-led takeover of spectrum. Most politically damning, the bill has also been characterized as a “spending bill,” leading to potential issues with House Republicans, and it is also expected that various Senate Republicans will place holds on the legislation questioning its cost impact.

Despite opposition from a number of quarters, the White House praised Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and ranking member Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) for taking a preliminary step to satisfying the President’s pledge to expand wireless coverage to 98% of Americans as part of the National Wireless Initiative. The wireless industry similarly welcomed the bill, characterizing the incentive auction plan as “critical” to satisfying growing customer demand for wireless broadband. Some organizations, however, expressed concern that the Act fails to afford the FCC sufficient flexibility to efficiently manage the auctions.

Sen. Rockefeller hopes to speed the legislation to a vote in the Fall, prior to the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks.