700 MHz Explained in 10 Steps

Last week we reported on the web giants Google, Yahoo and eBay setting aside their differences and joining forces with satellite television providers, demanding that they should have some say in what the FCC does with the 700 MHz spectrum.

The spectrum, currently owned by broadcasters, has been used for analog television. But it is set to be turned over to the government in 2009. Due to its broadcast-attractive physics (like its ability to penetrate walls), this spectrum is desirable for both broadband communications in general and public-safety uses in particular.

The FCC has described the 700 MHz as beachfront property, and has talked up the broadband capabilities of this spectrum swath. About 60 MHz of the former UHF (TV) spectrum is going to be reclaimed by the U.S. government and will be reallocated for public safety and commercial broadband networks. The TV channels using this spectrum are going to go dark on Feb. 19, 2009, if all continues as planned.

This is going to be an area of active debate for months to come, and we have prepared a little cheat sheet for you to better understand the past, the present and the future of 700 MHz.

1. The 700 MHz band is divided into two categories – the lower 700 MHz band and the upper 700 MHz band. The lower band is 48 MHz while upper band is 60 MHz.

2. In 2002, FCC re-allocated the 698-746 MHz band (Lower 700 MHz band) that was originally used by TV Channels 52-59. The upper band was for TV Channels 60-69. The reallocations come as FCC pushes hard for the television business to transition to DTV.

3. This is all part of the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) band, which once inspired a movie, UHF, starring Weird Al Yankovic and Michael Richards of Seinfeld. A large swathe of UHF spectrum has been reallocated for different uses. (#)

4. Aloha Partners is the largest owner of lower band 700 MHz spectrum. Qualcomm is another owner of this slice of the spectrum, and is currently deploying its MediaFLO Mobile TV network over these frequencies. Aloha has a plan to use former channels 54 and 59 for its HiWire Mobile TV.

5. In February 2006, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 216-214 and approved a budget package that would require analog television broadcasters to clear the 700 MHz airwaves on Feb. 17, 2009. President George W. Bush signed the transition package into law and approved $1.2 billion in funding for public safety communications.

6. Of the total 60 MHz, 24 MHz of the spectrum is reserved for public safety, while rest is going to be auctioned off. The auctions are expected to fetch $10 billion, though the total could hit the $30 billion mark.

7. Frontline Wireless, a company co-founded by former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, wants to build a contiguous nationwide broadband public safety network that uses 12 MHz from public safety spectrum, and 10 MHz from the commercial spectrum. Frontline rival Cyren Call Communications, started by Nextel founder Morgan O’Brien, has proposed a similar network but that uses 30 MHz of the 60 MHz that is part of the commercial spectrum. Cyren Call wants the government to award it the spectrum, while Frontline plans to bid competitively.

8. How will current analog TV users still get signals once the switch is made? Via set-top converter boxes, which the government will help pay for (each household will be able to apply for two $40 vouchers). This could be the biggest fly in the auction ointment, especially if the transition looks like it won’t go smoothly. Already, the administration is drawing criticism for dragging its feet. Watch for TV commercials to start soon.

9. Alcatel-Lucent have developed a CDMA 2000 system that uses the 700 MHz frequencies and is targeted at the public safety agencies. It has push to talk and multimedia capabilities.

10. According to some estimates, the cost of building a nationwide wireless network over the 700 MHz spectrum is around $2 billion versus a nationwide 1900MHz PCS that costs approximately $4 Billion. The costs are lower in rural areas, due to less interference issues and wide-open spaces. That’s because each tower broadcasting at 700MHz covers twice as many square miles. Some estimates say that a single 700 MHz tower can cover 20-miles. (#)

Further reading: Mobile Radio Technology, Daily Wireless.