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Did the FCC bribe US carriers on net neutrality?

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Debate at this week's CTIA shindig has apparently been about efficient spectrum use, but is the FCC just bribing the network operators to accept net neutrality without a fight?

CTIA, the industry body running the San Diego, California, event, has laid its cards on the table - it reckons that mobile telecommunications needs 800MHz of spectrum, and quickly. The Federal Communication Commission's new chair Julius Genachowski, meanwhile, cheers the industry by making it easier to roll out new base stations and fully endorsing demands for more radio spectrum, while in the next breath bringing up the touchy subject of net neutrality.

The industry not only wants more spectrum, and control over how it's used: Qualcomm has been at CTIA telling everyone that net neutrality means lower-end subscribers subsidizing the few who make use of excessive bandwidth, not to mention making it impossible for operators to offer priority for, say, VoIP traffic or streaming services.

But even without Net Neutrality the industry reckons customers are going to want a lot more bandwidth, and these days that means a lot more spectrum. The ability to squeeze more data into the same bands is largely exhausted, and LTE (the next-generation wireless protocol) achieves its much-touted 100Mb/sec by dynamically adjusting the width of the band used rather than fitting much more data into the same space.

But unless the FCC finds 800MHz of radio spectrum lying under a sofa somewhere, or perhaps hiding behind a tank, then the regulator is going to have to find a way to squeeze more usage out of the existing spectrum.

The CTIA often likes to point at the UK regulator, Ofcom, for example practices, but not in this case. Ofcom's philosophy is he who offers most money for a chunk of spectrum will make most efficient use of it - someone who pays billions of dollars for radio spectrum is more likely to extract the maximum value from it. There is some truth in that approach, but it's not one the CTIA endorses.

The FCC reckons easing the deployment of base stations will help, and the regulator plans to put time limits on objections to new base stations, a so-called "shot-clock" rule. While that might improve coverage for some, it's a small measure.

Spectrum Bridge, specialists in reselling radio spectrum licenses, reckon there's an awful lot of fallow spectrum lying around the place and that the FCC should educate spectrum owners about reselling opportunities - ideally to the point of putting a link to themselves on the FCC web site. The company reckons that by dynamically allocating spectrum to users on a second-by-second basis a much higher level of efficiency can be gained, but that needs kit that can move itself around the spectrum and is pushing today's technology pretty hard.

The CTIA reckons the network operators need another 800MHz of spectrum, but that is based on demand continuing to rise unabated. It's arguable that once users have a few megabits of data that demand will top out, though neither the CTIA nor the FCC has any interest in that particular argument.

The FCC has something to hold over the operators now - the promise of more radio spectrum. But in return, the regulator is going to ask the operators to accept net neutrality without a fight - so not so much about efficient use of spectrum after all. ®

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