Spectral Observations

This has been a particularly active (and more importantly, interesting) month for broadcast spectrum issues, which it’s increasingly clear to me have become the hot topic in technology today (as is more generally the case for any highly valued, limited-supply resource…oil, gold, diamonds, habitable and fertile land, water, etc). Robust wireless communications is especially critical for portable devices such as cellular handsets, portable multimedia devices, tablets and laptops…which by virtue of their inherent un-tethered nature are also battery-fueled and therefore low-power-consumption-optimized. As such, I thought I’d devote this month’s post to the topic. Below, please find my summaries of (and random thoughts regarding) recent relevant news events. I welcome your feedback!

Back in early October, Sprint formally confirmed what many industry observers had long suspected; the company was turning its back on the WiMAX 4G cellular data network that it had assembled with partner Clearwire, instead transitioning to LTE. Although various cellular service providers’ LTE networks will likely be frequency-incompatible with each other, standardization on common foundation equipment will be beneficial to infrastructure manufacturers, handset developers and service providers alike. However, Sprint’s transition won’t be completed until at least 2013 (and as an aside, the means by which the company will compensate customers at that time who currently own WiMAX-supportive gear is also unclear), meaning that Sprint will be reliant on WiMAX generally and Clearwire specifically until then. Clearwire has long had chronic fiscal issues; on December 1 we learned, however, that the company would live on for at least a while longer thanks to a $1.6B four-year-deal cash infusion from Sprint that encompassed both a WiMAX network lease in the near term and a LTE network conversion in the future. That conversion, by the way, is already underway; earlier today I learned that Sprint’s first LTE network cluster is now active in Kankakee, IL.

December 10 brought bad news for another embryonic LTE supplier, LightSquared. Preliminary government testing found that the service provider’s chosen frequencies destructively interfered with an estimated up to 75% of GPS receivers. It’s unclear at this point whether or not the issue is due to LightSquared’s excessive spectrum squatting, GPS technology’s frequency-range sloppiness, or some combination of the two variables. And LightSquared is also disputing both the testing fundamentals and the estimated conclusions. Nonetheless, regardless of the root cause(s) a substantial degree of interference does not bear well for LightSquared’s future regulatory-approval and other prospects.

On December 14, LTE early-adopter Verizon announced that it had reached an important milestone; its 4G cellular data network now enables it to potentially service approximately 200 million American men, women and children, translating to nearly 2/3 of the U.S. population (and a LTE network roughly 3x the size of AT&T’s). And to further augment Verizon’s network build-out, on December 2 the company revealed that it planned to spend $3.6B to purchase more than 100 spectrum licenses from a joint venture formed by Comcast, Time Warner and Bright House Networks. The acquisition is, of course, subject to FCC and broader U.S. government review.

Speaking of AT&T, the company’s had mixed spectrum success of late. On December 19, the company threw in the towel on its proposed acquisition of T-Mobile USA. The transaction seemed ideal to some, at least on paper; AT&T had adequate access to capital but insufficient available spectrum to actualize its network-build-out aspirations, while T-Mobile was spectrum-rich but capital-poor by virtue of its diminutive market share position. However, a number of consumer advocacy groups had vociferously complained about the consequent decrease in free-market competition that would result from a successful AT&T takeover of T-Mobile (leading to, among other things, forecasted irreparable harm to network neutrality). And both the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission had more recently also come out in opposition to the transaction.

Just a few days later, ironically, the FCC approved AT&T’s earlier-announced purchase of $1.9B of spectrum from Qualcomm. The latter company had originally acquired the spectrum, located at former UHF channel 55, for use in its MediaFLO mobile television service. However, MediaFLO never took off, due in part to delays in spectrum transfer to Qualcomm caused by a postponement of the U.S. NTSC-to-ATSC analog-to-digital TV transition. The fact that MediaFLO was a subscription service (with notable incremental upfront hardware expenses, to boot) versus a more conventional free advertising-supported approach, coupled with fundamental doubts as to the widespread viability of mobile television, didn’t help matters either. But this particular spectrum swath is highly desirable because, befitting its TV roots, it easily penetrates into the interiors of residences, offices and other structures.

Speaking of TV broadcasters, they (along with wireless microphone manufacturers) had long protested against so-called White Spaces technology, which adaptively harnesses for data services both unused television channels and the spectral space in-between channels in any particular region. I’m consistently on record in stating my belief that the broadcasters’ grievances were driven by little more than greed; a desire to retain control of frequency bands that they didn’t even own (but were leased to them by the U.S. government, thereby owned by U.S. citizens) and weren’t efficiently harnessing anyway. But more recently, they’d ironically gained some allies in the U.S. government, who were attempting to introduce legislation that’d hamper the FCC’s aspirations to manage unlicensed spectrum.

Perhaps someone should remind the House of Representatives of the notable economic and other benefits that have accrued from the widespread adoption of unlicensed 802.11 wireless LAN technologies? White Spaces is the conceptual WAN equivalent to 802.11, and the FCC showed its willingness to take the battle to its Legislative Branch foes when, just before Christmas, it formally approved the first White Spaces device, the Agility Data Radio made by KTS (Koos Technologies). Granted, at least for now its use will be restricted to only the Wilmington, North Carolina market (other White Spaces testing regions exist elsewhere in the United States, such as in several areas of Microsoft’s Redmond, WA campus). But as the saying goes, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ Here’s hoping that the voyage will soon commence in earnest.

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