FCC chairman takes the hot seat at wireless gathering

Julius Genachowski calls for more spectrum, but doesn't back down on plans to apply Net neutrality rules to wireless networks.

SAN DIEGO--In his first major address to the wireless industry, the new Federal Communications Commission chairman, Julius Genachowski, offered some good news for wireless operators at the industry's biannual gathering here Wednesday. But he reiterated the FCC's plans to apply new Net neutrality rules to wireless, a plan that has met resistance among the industry's major players.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski speaking at the CTIA 2009 fall show. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

As part of his speech, Genachowski announced a new initiative to add more spectrum for high-speed Internet access, and he offered assurances that the FCC will help speed up 4G wireless roll-outs by cutting through red tape for new tower deployments.

The industry has applauded these new initiatives. The CTIA, which is the trade organization for the wireless industry, recently sent a letter to the FCC asking it to consider opening up more spectrum for auction to help spur growth. And it has also been urging the FCC to speed up the process for building new towers.

Specifically, Genachowski said that the agency's main priority will be to make more spectrum available to wireless operators. And he said the FCC will impose a "shot clock" timetable for companies seeking permission to build cellular towers in local communities.

But Genachowski also said that he plans to keep the wireless Internet open. And he emphasized that the agency's Net neutrality principles, which will soon become official regulation , will also apply to wireless networks. While this latest bit of his agenda hasn't been popular with wireless operators, Genachowski said the agency's hope is to work closely with the industry.

"When we say that we haven't determined what we are going to do with handset exclusivity and we want your input, we mean it," he said. "The same applies to an open Internet. We want you to be engaged. We need you to be engaged. I am committed to running an expert agency that works for all Americans, that pursues high principles while recognizing the danger of dogma and the power of pragmatism."

Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets, said during his keynote address Wednesday that he is happy to work with the FCC. He applauded the agency's efforts to open up more spectrum and to speed up the bureaucratic process for building and expanding wireless networks.

"We welcome the call for a fact-based approach to these issues," he said. "And we are pleased, (Genachowski) wants to listen to us. But in a competitive market, consumers will assess the value of our service. And they will pick the winners and losers. And that is the way it should be."

Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets Marguerite Reardon/CNET

De la Vega pointed out the company's latest effort to keep its network open by allowing voice over IP services such as Skype to run on the iPhone . AT&T has the exclusive deal in the U.S. to carry the popular Apple smartphone on its network.

Genachowski said he appreciates AT&T's announcement. And he said this was good news for consumers.

But he said more work needs to be done. And even though Net neutrality is a priority at the agency, he said that allocating more spectrum and adding capacity to the wireless network is the No. 1 concern at the agency. He said that mobile data usage is exploding. And by 2013 U.S. consumers will use nearly 400 petabytes per month of wireless data compared with 6 petabytes per month in 2008.

"You don't have to know what a petabyte is to know that that's a game-changing trajectory," he said. "Spectrum is the oxygen of our mobile networks. While the short-term outlook for 4G spectrum availability is adequate, the longer-term picture is very different. I believe that that the biggest threat to the future of mobile in America is the looming spectrum crisis."

He proposed that the FCC will look at secondary markets to add more spectrum and will look to make its spectrum policies more flexible to encourage the use of unlicensed spectrum. He also said the FCC will encourage the use of smart antennas and femtocells.

But most importantly, Genachowski said that the FCC must reallocate spectrum currently being used for other purposes. He said that carriers have told the FCC that they need anywhere from 40MHz to 150MHz each to bring wireless broadband to consumers.

"It takes years to reallocate spectrum and put it to use," he said. "But we have no choice. We must identify spectrum that can best be reinvested in mobile broadband."

Genachowski also said that the FCC has heard the industry's call to help it work with local communities to get new cell phone towers approved much more quickly to help them build their next-generation wireless networks.

"We at the FCC understand the many challenges operators face in (building) networks," he said. "We are ready to help you cut through red tape and overcome these hurdles."

While the industry was happy to hear the good news that the FCC is willing to help it address some of its most pressing issues, leaders such as de la Vega resisted the agency's plans to extend Net neutrality principles to the wireless market.

Genachowski said it was imperative that the agency keep wireless broadband networks open to encourage more innovation. And he tried to allay fears that the FCC would impose arcane rules that would stifle innovation and investment.

"The goal of the proceeding will be to develop sensible rules of the road," he said. "Rules clear enough to provide predictability and certainty, and flexible enough to anticipate and welcome ongoing technological evolution."

But AT&T's de la Vega argued that imposing the same policy rules on wireless networks as it applies to wired networks is not a good idea. And he said that it is unfair for the FCC to impose any rules on wireless operators who have already spent billions of dollars buying licenses for wireless spectrum.

"The rules should not change after the auction," he said. "How can you expect companies to invest billions of dollars if you change the rules? The rules were clear in the 700MHZ auction for the next generation of wireless services. And these rules should not change now after the money has been spent. What would that say about the integrity of the 700MHz auction?"

 

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