Policy

Mixed Signals

7/21/2006 8:06 PM Eastern

A coalition of communications-service providers who bought 10-year wireless spectrum licenses in 1997 say they can’t roll out the broadband services they had planned because of static from satellite-radio service.

Now, with less than a year to go before those licenses come up for renewal, the providers — including Comcast Corp., BellSouth Corp., Sprint Nextel Corp. and AT&T Inc. — are turning to the Federal Communications Commission for help with the interference from satellite radio services being transmitted on neighboring spectrum.

They want a three-year license extension to work out the problem, and if they don’t get it, they risk losing their licenses.

The problem arises from an unusual juxtaposition of spectrum licenses. The Wireless Communications Services (WCS) licenses cover two bands — one from 2305 Megahertz to 2320 MHz and the other from 2345 MHz to 2360 MHz.

INTERNET VS. RADIO: Interference Penalty
The advent of wireless broadband services using Wireless Communications Services spectrum has been stymied by ... the signals of fast-growing satellite radio services, which are placing high-powered repeaters to get into tunnels or other hard-to- penetrate places. Here’s where the interference occurs:
SOURCE: Federal Communications Commission
2305 MHz-2320 MHz: AT&T Inc., BellSouth Corp., Comcast Corp., NextWave Broadband Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp., Verizon Laboratories Inc.
2332.5-2345 MHz: Digital Audio Radio Service. Licensees: XM Satellite Radio, Sirius Satellite Radio
2345 MHz-2360 MHz:AT&T Inc., BellSouth Corp., Comcast Corp., NextWave Broadband Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp., Verizon Laboratories Inc.

Sandwiched between those two bands is a strip of spectrum allocated for Digital Audio Radio Service, which in most major markets is owned by satellite-radio players XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio.

SATELLITE RADIO ROLE

The two companies each paid $80 million for the licenses, and are using the spectrum to field high-powered repeaters to reach areas where the satellite signal won’t penetrate — such as in tunnels or areas surrounded by high-rise buildings.

The satellite-radio providers originally told BellSouth they were simply going to deploy just a handful of repeaters to solve poor coverage problems in these urban areas, according to BellSouth director of product development Mel Levine.

“Well, that’s turned into a series of thousands of terrestrial repeaters all over the country, and they’ve converted a satellite system into a terrestrial system fed by satellite,” he said. “They line I-95 in Florida. There is no hilly terrain, there are no urban canyons and there are no tunnels. So what was the understanding of BellSouth and other WCS acquirers about what the satellite people were going to do turned out to be completely turned on its head.”

It’s a powerful problem. The repeaters are broadcasting at high power, blasting out signals as strong as 40,000 watts, Levine said. At that signal strength, “they will blow anything that I have off the face of the earth, and that’s the problem we have right now — that they can put those anywhere they want to.”

BellSouth is the largest single owner of these wireless licenses in major markets that include Atlanta, New Orleans and Miami. But it has opted to roll out its Wireless Broadband Service in secondary markets such as Pulaska, Fla. In those areas, satellite-radio providers have not set up repeaters, because there isn’t a significant enough customer base there, Levine said.

To make matters worse for BellSouth and other WCS holders, the FCC has not issued firm interference rules to cover the WCS and satellite-radio bands. That is causing suppliers of broadband wireless radio equipment to hesitate. Without those rules, they don’t know how to design their systems.

“The wireless broadband industry, up until recently, has been small vendors like Navini [Networks], and they don’t want to spend their capital building a dead-end system where they will start deploying it and the FCC puts final rules in place that causes everything to be thrown into turmoil,” Levine explained.

USE IT OR LOSE IT

All of this comes as the licensing clock ticks. The 10-year WCS licenses were issued in 1997 on a use-it-or-lose it basis. If the license holders can’t show that they have rolled out services using the spectrum, the FCC could choose to take back the licenses and put them up for auction.

For that reason, the WCS Coalition, a group of WCS spectrum holders including BellSouth, Comcast and AT&T, are petitioning the FCC’s Wireless Bureau for a three-year license extension. The extension will give them extra time to develop WiMAX radio systems and come up with interference guidelines that could allow the WCS and satellite radio systems to coexist.

The coalition, as well as BellSouth, has made a series of FCC filings arguing this point, and the satellite players have done likewise.

Repeated calls to Sirius were not returned. XM Satellite Radio issued a statement based on its recent FCC filing, arguing that the WCS license holders are to blame for delays in broadband wireless service rollouts, not satellite radio repeater-interference issues.

“There is WCS equipment available today and more could have been available had the WCS licensees, many of which have vast resources, been dedicated to developing WCS systems,” according to the XM statement. “Rather than focusing on permitted operations, however, the WCS licensees apparently have spent the last nine years hoping the rules would change in a way that would permit them to offer two-way mobile services — services that the Commission acknowledged long ago were effectively prohibited in WCS bands.”

XM does back the idea of creating rules to govern acceptable levels of interference for the satellite radio and WCS bands, according to the statement.

FCC TAKING COMMENTS

But as yet, the FCC has not taken up the issue or started looking into standards for interference in the WCS spectrum. The agency’s Wireless Bureau has started collecting comment on the petitions, but as yet no hearings have been scheduled.

The FCC was probably hoping the WCS license holders and satellite radio providers could work out the problems independently, but while there have been ongoing negotiations and work to create filters to screen out radio interference between the bands, neither effort has borne fruit, according to Paul Sinderbrand, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., law firm of Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP that is representing the WCS Coalition.

“WCS licensees are going to deploy something in most cases to preserve their licenses. This is a valuable band; these are valuable licenses and most licensees are committed to build facilities out that would entitle them to renewal if the extension isn’t granted,” he said.

BELLSOUTH DEPLOYING

Case in point is BellSouth, which has rolled out its Wireless Broadband Service using a pre-WiMAX technology services in Athens, Ga.; Palatka and DeLand, Fla.; New Orleans; and Gulfport, Miss. and recently announced plans to extend that in the third quarter to Melbourne, Fla.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Greenville, Miss.; Charleston, S.C.; and Albany, Ga.

“If the question is, are we deploying to save the spectrum? The answer, to a certain extent, is yes,” Levine said.

In contrast, Comcast, AT&T and Sprint Nextel have not deployed services using the spectrum and are not releasing information about plans to do so.

AT&T and Sprint Nextel have 32 and 19 licenses, respectively, which are distributed widely across the 52 major economic areas defined by the FCC. Comcast owns licenses in eight major-market regions, including portions of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Tennessee and Arkansas.

With no real chance the spectrum can be rearranged, the best resolution likely will be setting interference rules that allow WCS license holders and satellite radio providers to co-exist, Sinderbrand said.

“There is no bad guy here,” he said. “Everybody is acting in their economic self-interest and trying to work this out. And the WCS licensees should not be left with the short end of the stick, because we’ve done nothing wrong other than try to make a rational deployment plan, and we can’t make those deployment plans without knowing the interference we are going to be subjected to by a neighbor.”