The Federal Communications Commission has taken a step toward asking the two top U.S. carriers to stop hogging a chunk of valuable mobile spectrum.
The commission voted 3-0 Wednesday to issue a notice of proposed rule-making that could eventually force AT&T and Verizon Wireless to share the lower end of the 700 MHz spectrum it now controls. The carriers have asked their manufacturing partners to create devices that only work on their narrow spectrum band, crowding out smaller competitors.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement Wednesday that an auction of 700 MHz spectrum in 2008, which gave the lion's share to the Big Two, resulted in "the emergence of two non-interoperable band classes for devices. This was an unanticipated development and it is having consequences that raise real concerns."
Providers in the A band, he said, complain that they are unable to obtain devices on their networks that work on the spectrum they own. "Today, we initiate a proceeding on interoperability," Genachowski said.
The Big Two carriers argue that interoperability will create interference, and the FCC's involvement constitutes onerous over-regulation.
"The high-power broadcasts that are permitted in channel 51 and in the lower E-block create the potential for significant technical and deployment impediments in the neighboring lower 700 MHz blocks," wrote AT&T's Joan Marsh in a company blog post.
"Some have argued that the technical and physical limitations of the band should simply be ignored, and have called for sweeping interoperability mandates. 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."
But smaller carriers argue that because the phones enabled for high-speed, long-term evolution data networks used by AT&T and Verizon Wireless work within a narrow section of the band, there is little chance of interference and plenty of room for other carriers to join the party. The new procedure will sort out the facts.
"The FCC said that it will consider making rules requiring future handsets to work across the entire 700 MHz band -- not just the narrow points AT&T & Verizon employ today -- which would effectively open the entire band to any carrier that offered those handsets to customers," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. " But Genachowski also noted that 'An industry-wide solution would be a preferable solution.'
"Translation: We're keeping an eye on you two big kids. If you can't play nice with the smaller kids on your own, we'll step in and make sure you do."
It is the second time in less than a year that the FCC took on the Big Two carriers: Last April it voted to require AT&T and Verizon Wireless to forge roaming agreements to share access to their data networks with smaller carriers.