In Spectrum Conflict, Values at War

Wireless carriers targeting occupied bandwidths to deliver 3G services.

If youre going to battle for the heavens, youd probably want weaker adversaries than the Pentagon and the Roman Catholic Church—but those are the opponents wireless carriers face in their battle to procure new spectrum to deliver next-generation services.

Efforts to meet an October presidential directive to review the status of spectrum in the United States have resulted in two federal reports that offer observations but no real solutions for freeing up more bandwidth. At issue, government experts have determined, are the competing uses of the nations airwaves by commercial carriers, public safety organizations, the military and educational broadcasting.

"The real issue is that you have a limited resource with competing values," said Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell. "Youre fighting over value judgments of services."

The wireless industry, which is clamoring for more bandwidth to develop third-generation wireless data services, has its eye primarily on military frequencies, as well as those currently occupied by educational TV service operators. Both are putting up a formidable fight to keep their airspace.

Last months FCC report explained that 3G systems, as currently contemplated, will not be able to coexist with the bands current tenants without major interference.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Departments National Telecommunications and Information Administration study, which was released earlier this month, said that unrestricted sharing of the 1710MHz-to-1850MHz band between wireless carriers and current federal government users is essentially impossible but that the problem could be solved if federal users, mainly the Pentagon, would relocate to another band within the next few years. The military uses the 1710MHz-to-1850MHz band for astronomy and wartime communications, among other things. Department of Defense officials said they have no plans to clear the band before 2017.

The 2500MHz-to-2690MHz band is occupied by myriad cable TV outfits, including CTN (Catholic Television Network), which has said that moving to another band would be too costly and too confusing to its viewers.

The FCC report backed up the current tenants, saying, "There is no readily identifiable alternate frequency band that could accommodate a substantial relocation of the incumbent operations in the 2500MHz-to-2690MHz band."

"We think the facts are on our side—the commission has got it right," said Henry Rivera, an attorney with the Washington law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP, which represents CTN. "But any time you tangle with DOD, youve got a fight on your hands."

CTN and other educational broadcasters suggested that the FCC look to other bands identified as potential 3G locations, including 2110MHz to 2150MHz and 2160MHz to 2165MHz.

"It does not have to be a choice between education and defense," Rivera said. While these bands are convenient —they have propagation characteristics conducive to 3G services—they are not contiguous and will likely present engineering challenges that could result in higher-priced services, he added.

By July, the FCC is supposed to have a definitive statement on relocation. In the meantime, the public has until this week to respond to the report.

"If anyone relocates, its going to take 10 years, which is too little, too late," said Andrew Seybold, president of Andrew Seybold Group LLC, of Los Gatos, Calif., which provides consulting services on wireless issues. "And because of the change in administration, its going to be harder than ever because the Republicans are even more pro-military than the Democrats were."

On the other hand, Republicans are supposed to be pro-commerce, too. Some people hope the new administration will mean more spectrum for wireless carriers. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., this month reintroduced the Third Generation Wireless Internet Act, which is designed to increase the spectrum cap that currently limits companies from hogging the waves. The bill was originally introduced in the previous Congress.

"The Third Generation Wireless Internet Act will ensure that companies currently at the limits ... will still be able to participate in 3G deployment," Brownback said.

FCC Chairman Powell, however, seems less certain that anything can "ensure" enough spectrum.

"Demand is going to always and forever outstrip supply on this issue," he said. "More spectrum will by no means solve the problem."

Wireless carriers, meanwhile, continue to evaluate various migration plans to 3G wireless. Analysts say the spectrum issue puts some in a better position than others. CDMA2000, for one, does not necessarily require new spectrum in order to upgrade from Code Division Multiple Access, which is what many networks currently run. Other 3G networks definitely require new spectrum for upgrade.