The FCC kicked off a process that should eventually allow Dish Network to use its satellite spectrum to build a 4G LTE wireless broadband network.
At its March opening meeting, the FCC voted unanimously to begin a rulemaking process aimed at letting Dish use spectrum designated for satellite use to provide a land-based wireless broadband service. Draft regulations described the service and technical rules for implementing the flexible use of the spectrum.
Dish had asked the FCC to grant it a waiver so that it could use 40 MHz of spectrum in the 2 GHz band for 4G. But earlier this month, the commission put off granting a waiver to Dish in favor of a formal rule-making. The FCC says it expects to conclude the process by the end of the year.
Dish chairman Charlie Ergen has said publicly that the delay will make it difficult for the company to compete with other providers that have already begun building their 4G LTE networks. And he said that Dish will look at all its options. There have been rumors that Dish might sell its spectrum to AT&T, which is looking for more spectrum since its deal to buy T-Mobile USA fell apart late last year.
The FCC also adopted a measure that will look at how to make devices interoperate in the lower bands of the 700 MHz block of spectrum. Regional wireless carriers say that incompatibilities between their blocks of 700 MHz spectrum and the blocks of 700 MHz used by bigger AT&T, which also owns spectrum in the lower portion of the 700 MHz band, has made it harder for them to deploy LTE services.
Even though all the wireless operators who bought spectrum in the 700 MHz auction are using spectrum from the same band, they each use different pieces of it. Rural carriers tend to hold licenses in the lower half of the block, and AT&T also owns some of this spectrum thanks to its bandwidth deal with Qualcomm.
There are all kinds of potential interference issues in this lower portion of the spectrum. But regional carriers want the FCC to make sure that the chipsets for their services are compatible with chipsets for AT&T's service. Otherwise, these smaller carriers say they won't have the volume necessary for handset makers to make devices for their networks. It also means that their customers wouldn't be able to roam onto AT&T's network unless their devices had additional radio technology included.
AT&T has argued in the past that the interference issues are too great and that devices cannot be forced to use the same exact radio technology that will operate across the entire lower portion of the 700 MHz band of spectrum.
So the FCC is looking into whether there's a solution that settles AT&T's interference concerns while also ensuring that smaller carriers can offer competitive handsets and roaming.
AT&T said in a statement after the vote that it "welcomes this proceeding to the extent that it offers an opportunity to find real solutions to the real interference and deployment challenges in the band." But the carrier still claims that a mandatory interoperability requirement would be a mistake.
"Such mandates would be an unprecedented regulatory intrusion into a carrier's right to manage network and device deployment in a manner best suited to serve its customers," Joan Marsh, a vice president of regulatory affairs at AT&T, said in a statement.
Finally, the FCC took up a notice of inquiry from the NTIA, which is proposing to reallocate spectrum at 1695-1710 MHz from government to commercial use. This proceeding will help the FCC determine how it can best use this spectrum.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski also announced that the the commission has officially charged a task force with figuring out how the FCC will conduct its incentive spectrum auctions, mandated by the payroll tax legislation passed by Congress last month.