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Sprint, WorldCom cling to their wireless spectrum

The FCC is hoping to find spectrum for next-generation broadband wireless services, but the companies are trying to ensure their fixed wireless broadband spectrum isn't taken.

    WASHINGTON--WorldCom and Sprint would like the world to know it doesn't make sense to enable next-generation wireless broadband services by destroying the very wireless broadband services they've spent billions preparing to launch.

    The Federal Communications Commission hasn't said it will take the airwaves, or spectrum, from WorldCom, Sprint or other providers. But the agency is feeling pressure from a White House executive order to free up spectrum so that so-called 3G services--such as high-speed Internet access and video conferencing--can come to our wireless phones and help the United States catch up with Europe and Asia in the wireless market. And one of the spectrum bands being considered globally and under examination by the FCC for 3G is 2.5GHz, where Sprint and WorldCom are planning to launch broadband using a fixed wireless service that transmits high-speed data to small dishes mounted on homes and office buildings.

    Fixed wireless refers to stationary wireless devices, such as many radios, that draw their power from electrical outlets, in contrast with mobile wireless devices such as cell phones, which are battery powered.

    WorldCom Wireless Regulatory Affairs Vice President Robert Koppel told the FCC there was no logic in "displacing or disrupting one advanced wireless service being deployed today," namely fixed wireless, "in place of another planned wireless service--3G--that is not being launched and that could not operate in this spectrum band for many years to come."

    WorldCom has spent about $1 billion to cover 30 mostly underserved markets, while Sprint has spent more than $2 billion to reach 13 similar markets, all since the FCC issued new rules allowing two-way data delivery with this technology. What these spectrum incumbents told the FCC in filings Thursday is that while 3G service in the United States is years away, fixed wireless broadband service is mere months away if the FCC doesn't interfere with their spectrum.

    The FCC has not said that it intends to move fixed wireless incumbents, and in fact there are other spectrum bands--700 Mhz, where TV channels 60-69 reside; and 1.7GHz, where government spectrum owners such as the Pentagon operate--under consideration for 3G.

    There is also the possibility that Sprint and WorldCom could be asked to share the spectrum with 3G providers, but both companies dismissed this option.

    "Technical studies demonstrate that mobile wireless and fixed wireless operators cannot coexist" in this spectrum, Sprint Vice President for Federal Regulatory Affairs Jay Keithley told the FCC. "Both services are ubiquitous and can operate at any time, making avoidance of mutual harmful interference impossible."

    Keithley also dismissed the idea of segmenting the spectrum band, saying that would increase Sprint's costs "so dramatically that any reasonable return on their investment would be erased."

    While the FCC is far from reaching any conclusions on the spectrum band, it's doubtful the agency would rule out having fixed and mobile providers share the band.

    "Two-way fixed broadband service is just beginning to be rolled out," FCC Commissioner Susan Ness said recently, adding she wouldn't want to stifle one broadband offering in order to assist another. "The examination to date has not found that sharing (airwaves between fixed wireless and 3G providers) would be very easy."

    Forced relocation?
    The only alternative then, if the FCC were determined to free up at least some of the 2.5GHz band for 3G, would be a forced relocation of fixed wireless incumbents, a process that incumbents say wouldn't be much prettier than the "trail of tears" that led Native American tribes to the Oklahoma territory.

    "There is no precedent for a forced relocation of an emerging mass-market service, and for good reason," said Koppel. "It is not possible to compensate (incumbents) for all of the disruptions and loss of business that would be caused by such a relocation." He added that other spectrum to which WorldCom could be moved hasn't even been identified yet.

    Keithley questioned whether there is even spectrum out there that would have the same robust characteristics that suit fixed wireless services the way the 2.5GHz band does.

    While much of the FCC's focus has been on Sprint and WorldCom because of the potential irony of dislodging one broadband provider for another, they are only a portion of the fixed wireless providers operating in that spectrum. Numerous other companies offer wireless video cable services, which combined with the WorldCom and Sprint holdings make for 2,659 licenses across the United States, according to the FCC's Mass Media Bureau.

    In addition, the spectrum is used by educators such as colleges, parochial schools and even public broadcasters to provide distance learning and other non-commercial services. The Mass Media Bureau has records on 2,308 of those licenses, and many of those licensees also protested the possibility of a disruption to their spectrum band in comments with the FCC Thursday.

    According to last year's executive order the FCC is to issue its 3G rules by July, which would include what spectrum would be made available so it could be made ready for auction in 2002.