FCC Takes Small Step Toward National Broadband Plan

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-06-18

FCC Takes Small Step Toward National Broadband Plan

The Federal Communications Commission has kicked off the next step to its search for new radio spectrum for broadband users today by announcing that it would release a portion of the 2 GHz S-band now used for mobile satellite communications.  

The new frequencies would be available for use in terrestrial broadband applications in addition to their current use in low earth orbit satellite communications. The existing satellite use would continue. 

The June 18 action is part of the FCC's implementation of its National Broadband Plan, announced earlier this year. Use of this band was part of the agreements that facilitated Harbinger Capital's acquisition of all of SkyTerra Communications and its broadband frequencies. The acquisition enables Harbinger Capital to provide wholesale 4G services to mobile communications companies.  

The FCC approval means that Harbinger can use its resulting terrestrial and satellite services to provide a nationwide converged terrestrial and satellite network. Other companies using this portion of the spectrum are satellite communications providers Inmarsat and TerreStar, both of which are partially owned by Harbinger. 

In April, the FCC released a 25 MHz chunk of bandwidth to mobile communications. At the time, the Commission stated that the goal was to remove barriers to flexible use of existing spectrum. The new announcement today makes more bandwidth available in a frequency range that's adjacent to existing wireless data services, which in turn eases the problem of designing equipment to take advantage of it. 

According to a statement from the Spectrum Task Force at the FCC, today's announcement should make an additional 90 MHz of spectrum available for broadband wireless.  

At some point later this year, the FCC will determine exactly how it wants to go about the next stage of its National Broadband implementation. The most likely events are that the FCC will issue a Notice of Inquiry (NOI), in which the FCC will solicit comments from the public and the industry on how to proceed.  

This would be followed by a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) setting forth what the FCC plans to do and how it plans to do it. Both the NOI and the NPRM will involve public hearings. At this point, no date has been set for either event. 

Ultimately, the FCC's National Broadband Plan proposes to deliver 500 MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband services by 2020. These radio frequencies will come from a variety of sources ranging from shared access such as in the June 18 announcement, to narrow slivers of previously unused guard frequencies, such as those in the TV whitespace plans.  

FCC Action Won't Fill Pressing Need for 4G Data Service

Those guard frequencies are in place to keep adjacent services, such as television broadcasting channels, from interfering with each other. The FCC has posted complete agenda for the National Broadband Plan on its Web site. You can also read a a chart of the related action items.

If all of this seems like a nearly impossible, highly complex plan, that's because it is. There's very little unoccupied radio spectrum available in the US, and that means that existing users either have to be moved, or they have to accommodate additional users. When existing users have to be moved to new frequencies, this in turn means that someone has to pay the cost of moving them. Frequently this is because the previous occupants of a section of radio spectrum will have to buy new hardware, and that can be very expensive. 

Moving users in and out of a piece of spectrum can also take quite a while. A good example is the transition to digital television which took years and cost billions of dollars. In this case, consumers were offered television converters largely at government expense, and the broadcasters were mostly moved into the previously under-utilized UHF television broadcasting spectrum. But even with plenty of warning and a lot of government funding, the process wasn't quick or easy. Bringing such a change to commercial users, especially on short notice, can be a great deal worse. 

The fact that the FCC has little choice but to implement a plan of the sort it's about to begin is beside the point. No matter what the FCC does, it will be expensive, it will inconvenience a lot of people and a lot of companies, and it will take a long time - probably longer than the ten years the FCC now projects. 

The only thing that makes it easier is that 4G technology isn't really here. The hoopla by Sprint about the launch of their 4G network notwithstanding, there is no true commercial 4G data service in the US, and there isn't likely to be any for another year or two.  

Whether the National Broadband Plan will deliver the spectrum in time for real 4G remains to be seen, but it's a fairly safe bet that the technology will be here before the spectrum is ready for it. But that's not really anything new - we don't have the bandwidth we need now, and probably never will. Perhaps it's an incentive to companies to find ways to deliver more capability for less bandwidth than they do now.

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