FCC’s Broadband Plan: Mobile Broadband Will Save Us!

The Federal Communications Commission issued the long-awaited National Broadband Plan this week, a 376-page document that makes clear the agency accepts the reality of the current wireline duopoly — and as such, has decided to put the burden of competitive pressure on mobile broadband.
There are many consumer-friendly aspects of the plan, such as opening up set-top boxes (GigaOM Pro, sub req’d) and creating an easy-to-understand label that shows people what their broadband connections are capable of (see image). But the FCC has clearly decided against a plan that requires a new infrastructure buildout when the current infrastructure will suffice. If only the agency had moved to tackle this issue back in 2002, when the telecommunications providers were thinking about how their fiber rollouts were going to occur, and implemented policies that could have resulted in a shared nationwide fiber network.
When Life Gives You Lemons …
But now that Verizon (s vz) is spending $19 billion to push fiber to the home for 80 percent of its footprint (although that push may be slowing) and cable providers have pushed fiber out closer to the home in their networks and are deploying DOCSIS 3.0 upgrades, the FCC needs to work with what ISPs have in the field. So the bulk of the wireline reform coming out of the plan consists of regulatory tweaks to address predatory special access charges, inter-carrier compensation rules, set rates for access to underground conduits and utility poles, and in-depth proposals for universal service fund reform.
Yes, the FCC is proposing that wireline networks will be faster if the 2020 goal of 100 Mbps speeds down and 50 Mbps speeds up are met, but that’s a goal, not something I’m sure the FCC can and will enforce. Another goal is 1-gigabit connections to community centers and schools, which depending on how it’s implemented could help drive faster networks as well. But again, those are 2020 goals.When it comes to ensuring competition between the duopoly in the short term, the FCC will rely on data. The plan proposes changes to both the type and amount of data the FCC collects, and also asks the Bureau of Labor Statistics to collect information on how people use broadband.
The FCC says it will watch for price discrepancies and inequalities as newer networks are deployed and the types of services available to consumers diverge in speeds from wireless broadband’s 1 Mbps downstream speeds to fiber’s 100 Mbps downlink speeds. However, it doesn’t lay out how such inequalities — if they do emerge — will be addressed. Rather, mobile broadband is the star of the plan, both because it offers hope of a third broadband competitor in many areas, and also because of the potential for future growth and innovation of the U.S. economy.
Airwaves Are the Key
I’ll write more in the coming weeks on the spectrum aspects of the plan. The details as to how the FCC plans to go from having 50 MHz available for mobile broadband today to 500 MHz in 10 years will result in a pretty big legislative battle as the FCC tries to nab broadcaster spectrum and incumbents and tech firms position to own large chunks of those valuable airwaves.
But the real benefit of mobile broadband as a competitive stick is threefold: it can cover the entire country relatively cheaply, existing operators are already moving to all-IP networks that the FCC sees as the future of its regulatory jurisdiction (the airwaves will always be part of the FCC oversight even if Internet applications and services are not), and the infrastructure is easily upgradable without tearing up streets and installing gear into people’s homes.
So to push the mobile broadband envelope the FCC wants to take actions to free up 300 MHz by 2015. The chart lays out the spectrum bands and the timing for this FCC airwave grab, and I offer a bit more context below.

WCS: This spectrum is contentious because Sirius Satellite is worried about interference from any cellular operators deploying service in this band. The plan proposes to resolve that issue this year.

AWS 2 and 3: These 60 MHz should be relatively easy to get to auction or to allocate for mobile broadband once the government makes some decisions. At issue with some of this spectrum is whether it will be paired with spectrum the FCC will have to carve out from other federal holdings. The agency hopes to figure this pairing issue out with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by Oct. 1. Paired spectrum is useful for deploying the more common, forward division multiplexing-type of networks.
D Block: These 10 MHz were too much trouble during the last spectrum auction because they were burdened with huge public safety network rules. The goal, to which the plan dedicates an entire chapter and $6.5 billion, is to build out a nationwide public safety network so all local, state and federal first responders can communicate in case of an emergency. These 10 MHz will have to connect with spectrum set aside for the National Public Safety network, and will have to be deployed to work with commercial handsets using LTE network technology. This makes such spectrum a good bet as a safety valve or a backup chunk of spectrum for an existing provider.
MSS: Mobile satellite service providers such as Terrestar, SkyTerra, and Inmarsat own spectrum in this band because they’ve promised to build a combination satellite-and-terrestrial network. So far they’ve failed to make good on that promise, and I have huge doubts that they ever will. The FCC appears to be relaxing some of the more stringent requirements on satellite providers to see if they can deliver a credible mobile broadband service with devices consumers will buy. If the FCC eliminates some of the satellite requirements, the MSS spectrum holders hope their spectrum becomes more valuable.
Broadcast TV: The FCC hopes to pry 120 MHz away from broadcasters in urban areas, where cellular providers have the most need for spectrum, which will pit the FCC and carriers against big broadcasters and over-the-air television watchers in big cities. Oh. My. God. It’s going to be a showdown. But I’m glad the FCC isn’t going for a token spectrum grab from rural broadcasters, which would be easy but wouldn’t alleviate network congestion.
The FCC isn’t making friends in Congress (or with over-the-air television buffs) with this plan, but as the final arbiter on how televisions have to send out their signals, it has the ability to squish some channels together and dictate how broadcasters use their 6MHz channels. To ease the pain of the FCC flexing this power over broadcaster’s spectrum allotments, it’s asking Congress to change the way spectrum auction proceeds are shared so as to let broadcasters have a piece of the pie. To bolster its controversial move, the FCC points out that cellular companies have valued each megahertz of spectrum per person covered at $1.28 while the television spectrum is currently valued at 11-15 cents. Why? Because mobile broadband is the future and over-the-air television is on its way out. Heck, the FCC even notes that poor consumers could get their broadcast through subsidized IPTV instead.
Getting more spectrum is the biggest aspect of expanding mobile broadband, but rules to make it easier to deploy microwave backhaul are also in the queue for 2010. And the FCC pledges to allocate a band for unlicensed wireless, although it doesn’t specify where this band might be. It also touches on the white spaces broadband the FCC approved in 2008, basically saying it wants to see devices and networks using white spaces broadband soon. We do, too. We thought we’d have more than a few trial networks by now. For folks watching and waiting for this flood of spectrum, the FCC and the NTIA set a deadline of Oct. 1 of this year to identify additional spectrum for use.
Since mobile broadband is the lynchpin of our federal broadband plan, we’d better get this right.
This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com