Spectrum Politics and Universal Broadband Service

Spectrum regulation made its way to the forefront of Washington politics recently, with both the President and representatives of the FCC expressing views on the future of broadband wireless data

Dave Molta

June 11, 2004

3 Min Read
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Spectrum regulation made its way to the forefront of Washington politicsrecently, with both the President and representatives of the FederalCommunication Commission expressing views on the future of broadbandwireless data services. President George W. Bush kicked things off inApril when he publicly stated his administration's goal of achievinguniversal broadband service by 2007. If that goal has any chance ofbeing realized, wireless must play a significant part. Then, last month,representatives of the FCC participated in a panel discussion at the WCA(Wireless Communication Association) 2004 conference to talk about moreeffectively managing radio spectrum.

Most people who live in urban and suburban areas already have broadbandchoices, typically DSL or cable, and the combination of competition andwidespread adoption has pushed subscription costs down to as low as $30per month. However, the further you move from densely populated areas,the more costly it is for service providers to deliver these broadbandservices. Hence, they don't offer the service to all prospectivecustomers, and there's no law that compels them to do so. In many cases,the only alternative in outlying areas is satellite, which costs twiceas much per month and suffers from performance and reliability problems.The most promising solution to this problem is the deployment ofwireless broadband data services such as WiMax.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell hammered home this point at an FCC WirelessBroadband Forum also held last month. He referred to increasingbroadband access as "the central communication policy objective of theera." Powell advanced what he referred to as a simple goal: To provideevery single American with affordable broadband data access no matterwhere they choose to live. For Powell, delivering on this goal isessential to the country's global competitiveness. He acknowledged thatthe increased availability of DSL and cable is a good thing. Butenhancing the footprint of wireless broadband gives consumers threealternatives, something Powell refers to as the "Holy Grail," where"magical things happen in competitive markets."

So how do we get there? Of the initiatives currently on the table, twoseem the most interesting. First, and perhaps most obvious, is theeffort to increase available bandwidth in the unlicensed 5-GHz spectrum.I've written repeatedly about this issue in the past. Wi-Fi radios thatcan operate in this spectrum are already available, and these radios canbe adapted (using alternative MAC interfaces) to provide low-costfixed-wireless services, especially in rural areas where interference isnot as great a concern.

The second initiative, which may prove to have as great or greaterimpact on future wireless broadband service, relates to the developmentof more flexible regulation of the 2.5-GHz MDS and ITFS bands. The 190MHz worth of choice radio real estate between 2.5 and 2.69 GHz wasoriginally allocated for specialized educational TV services butrepurposed for data. Sprint and MCI purchased licenses and deployedfirst-generation MMDS data services, but limitations of early technologymade it challenging to establish a competitive business model. Now, theFCC wants to develop more flexible usage regulations as well as increasecompetition, through licensing that encourages multiple providers toshare portions of this band, while encouraging broad national deploymentstrategies by carriers. Of course, none of this will be possible withoutadvances in technology. But by sending a clear signal that wirelessbroadband is a national policy priority, the government is definitelyencouraging commercial development.Can the FCC pull off this feat of regulatory magic without totallyalienating incumbent operators? That's a tough call. But unlike manypolicy issues the FCC faces -- like managing competition in broadcastradio and television -- broadband wireless service is a goal embraced byboth political parties. Now if the technocrats can just agree on astrategy, we might actually see some positive action.

-- Dave Molta, [email protected]

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