ST. LOUIS -- With a major deadline looming, the Federal Communications Commission has its work cut out for it as it drills down on the specifics of freeing up 500 MHz of wireless spectrum over the next decade to build out mobile broadband networks.
That goal, originally included in the FCC's national broadband plan, has received the endorsement of the White House, and with it an Oct. 1 deadline to present a roadmap for spectrum policy.
In addition to that overarching plan, the FCC is also working under a fall deadline to create set rules for allocating the white spaces spectrum, the slivers of unused airwaves that sit between TV channels on the broadcast airwaves.
Here at the regional meeting of the Wireless Internet Service Providers' Association (WISPA), fixed wireless broadband providers said they are eager to utilize this spectrum to penetrate through obstructions such as trees to reach customers that they have not been able to serve in the past. Every WISP has a database listing customers who called and asked for service but whom the provider is unable to reach.
White-space spectrum has strong propagation characteristics that can span long distances and penetrate thick obstacles. This technology could rapidly increase rural broadband coverage, reaching many of those in the most remote areas of the country.
In a keynote address here, Julius Knapp, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, noted that WISPA and the FCC have successfully worked together on spectrum issues in the past. In the 3.65 GHz proceeding, for instance, the FCC adopted a groundbreaking rule, known as "licensed light," in which operators using this spectrum make a commitment to work together to resolve deployment issues.
"We wanted to open the spectrum to everyone and encourage providers to work together as a community instead of implementing a spectrum coordination system that would have cost thousands of dollars for every link," Knapp said, signaling that he hopes to collaborate with the wireless ISP community in the coming spectrum
"The FCC needs your participation," he added.
The national broadband plan
But white spaces are only one component of the FCC's ambitious spectrum agenda. Wireless receives a whole chapter in the national broadband plan the commission delivered to Congress in March.
Knapp said that the plan's long-term aim, to deliver broadband to the 14 million Americans without access to it, could be as significant as the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, rural electrification of the 1930s or the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.
The plan seeks to increase transparency concerning spectrum allocations, encourage its efficient use and open new frequencies for broadband. The White House highlighted those goals in a June 28 presidential memorandum, titled "Unleashing the Wireless Broadband Revolution."
Lawrence Summers, the director of the White House National Economic Council, fleshed out that directive in a speech the same day, announcing the October deadline for the FCC and National Telecommunications Information Administration, the agency that oversees government spectrum, to deliver their plan.
Summers, like many other backers of spectrum reform, spoke of a looming crisis that could see wireless networks buckle under the increasing data traffic from mobile Web-enabled devices if the agencies don't enact policies to free up more of the airwaves.
Ongoing proceedings at the FCC will examine the potential not just for unlicensed spectrum but also for the opportunistic use of spectrum. "Radio technology has changed," Knapp said. "Today, a smart radio can look at signal levels in spectrum and figure out where the spaces are."
The eventual goal of the national broadband plan is to deliver broadband connections with 100 Mbps download speeds and 50 Mbps upload to 100 million homes by 2020. In addition, anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings should have access to 1 Gbps connections by that time.
One WISPA member, John Scrivner, asked Knapp to consider the possibility of "spectrum homesteading." Under that policy, WISPs would be awarded a license to use the spectrum after they had built out service.
"This would create a land rush. There would be a rapid buildout and WISPs would be well served," said Scrivener.
"I don't want to respond off the cuff, but it's important that the FCC be a forum for new ideas," Knapp replied.