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US carriers attack FCC's puritan broadband

Wireless Groundhog Day

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To the surprise of no one, engineers representing America's incumbent wireless carriers and broadband internet providers have attacked the FCC's plan to grace the country with a free "third pipe."

Earlier this month, the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) told chairman Kevin Martin he could move ahead with his plan to provide ad-supported wireless broadband in the so-called AWS-3 band, saying this could be done without interfering with signals in the adjacent AWS-1 band.

But T-Mobile - the Deutsche Telekom-owned outfit now sitting in AWS-1 band - sees things a differently. This week, it led a cavalcade of carriers, ISPs, and handheld manufacturers in telling Martin that the OET is misreading its own tests.

"The conclusions drawn by the FCC from the tests were way off and based on faulty assumptions," Tom Sugrue, T-Mobile's vice president of government affairs and former chief of the FCC's wireless bureau, tells The Reg. "They ignored some of the data, mis-characterized other parts, and so forth. It seemed to us just to be an effort to reach a result that was pretty much predetermined."

The OET ran its interference tests alongside T-Mobile engineers, at a company lab in Seattle. And the commission stands by its results. "We believe that we can move forward with the proposal and allow for free broadband to be used in AWS-3 without causing harmful interference to users in adjacent bands - namely AWS-1 - in a way that would be beneficial to consumers," says FCC spokesman Rob Kenny.

"Our engineers were out in Seattle. They participated in the testing with T-Mobile. And they told [the chairman] there was a way to go forward."

The chairman unveiled his free broadband plan in June, more than two years after a (very) similar plan was proposed by a start up that calls itself M2Z Networks. Under the plan, the FCC would auction off the spectrum between 2155- and 2180-MHz on the US dial, and the winning bidder would have no choice but to plant a free network on up to 25 per cent of that spectrum.

This free network would offer open-access to any application and any device. It would provide download speeds of at least 768kbps. And it would include some sort of "network-based filtering mechanism...in order to protect children and families."

In May 2006, M2Z asked the FCC if it could license a slightly smaller chunk of spectrum for this sort of puritanical wireless network. After sitting on the proposal for 15 months, the commission said no. But Martin eventually decided - following an M2Z lawsuit - that the FCC should auction off the AWS-3 band (along with an extra 5-MHz from the AWS-2 band) and attach rules that look an awful lot like M2Z's business plan.

In its original application, for instance, M2Z said that its free ad-driven network would reach at least 50 per cent of the US within four years and 95 per cent within a decade. The FCC has now turned this timetable into a requirement for the winner of its auction.

Martin is now awaiting a response to the plan from his follow commissioners. But so far, there's been nothing but, well, radio silence. The commissioners will not vote on the issue at their next meeting on November 4, and even if the plan is approved by the end of this year, an auction isn't likely to occur before the end of 2009.

Like the other incumbent wireless carriers, T-Mobile doesn't like the FCC auctioning off spectrum with such strict requirements. "I don't agree with this as a licensing plan - this is actually a reversal of 20 years or more of bipartisan spectrum policy where you got away from using one company's business plan to set rules," says Sugrue.

In all likelihood, T-Mobile would prefer to fold the AWS-3 band into its own network - without having to serve up a portion for free. But Sugrue insists the main issue is possible interference with the company's existing bandwidth.

The FCC is proposing the deployment of Time Division Duplexing (TDD) technology won't interfere with T-Mobile's Frequency Divisioned Duplexing (FDD) network, and in the Czech Republic, a TDD network has already been rolled out alongside the company's FDD bandwidth. But Sugrue says this is apples and oranges. "The TDD/FDD scenario in the Czech Republic is very different from [what's been proposed] for the AWS-3 band, and thus, any extrapolation of broader lessons from these operations is fundamentally flawed."

And so, the FCC is embroiled in two interference kerfuffles. This month, OET also OKed the use of high-speed broadband devices in the US "white spaces" - unused portions of the television spectrum - and naturally, the TV folk are peeved.

But Tom Sugrue says his problem is worse. "The [white spaces] order that is now before the commissioners to be voted on has a 150-page engineering analysis," he says. "With the OET report they put out for [AWS-3], they spent three days with us and put out a 23 page report. It's a study in contrasts as far as how seriously these issues are being treated." ®

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