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FCC Group Crafting Plans to Open up Mobile Spectrum

The Federal Communications Commission Spectrum Task Force laid out preliminary ideas on Friday for making frequencies now used for satellite services available for conventional mobile broadband.

The group is considering proposing to the FCC a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the satellite-related radio spectrum that would be presented at the Commission's next meeting on July 15. The task force was formed recently to execute an intention stated in the National Broadband Plan for freeing up 500MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband by 2020. Mobile operators, device manufacturers and application vendors all have called for more spectrum to be made available for wireless networks, which in some cases are already straining under increased loads of mobile data.

Changes in the Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) band would be intended to make 90MHz of additional spectrum available for terrestrial mobile broadband. Mobile satellite services would remain available. On a conference call Friday, the co-chairs of the task force described two changes that will be proposed for opening up satellite spectrum.

"The more spectrum we get out there, the more opportunity there is for new entrants and incumbents alike to gain additional access to spectrum," said Co-Chair Ruth Milkman, chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.

The group will propose that frequencies be allocated within the "S" band -- one of three bands in the MSS range -- for pure terrestrial wireless broadband services, either fixed or mobile, said Co-Chair Julius Knapp, who also heads the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology. Currently, holders of spectrum in that band can only build terrestrial networks to complement their satellite systems. In addition, the task force will call for rule changes that would allow service providers that license MSS spectrum to lease those frequencies on a secondary market. The FCC has already allowed secondary-market spectrum leasing in some other areas.

The task force is also seeking other ideas about how to open up mobile broadband investment in the MSS bands, Knapp said. No more specific changes were outlined on Friday for the other two MSS bands: the "L" band and the "big LEO" band, for large Low Earth Orbit satellites, such as those used by the Iridium satellite phone service, that operate at a lower altitude than other orbiting craft.

The FCC has already taken action to make more spectrum available for mobile broadband. Earlier this year, it approved the acquisition of satellite phone service provider SkyTerra, which holds spectrum in the "L" band, by Harbinger Capital Partners. By 2015, Harbinger plans to deploy a terrestrial 4G (fourth-generation) mobile data service that can be used in conjunction with its satellite offering, according to the FCC. This could create another high-speed mobile network that would compete with those of the major carriers, while including some service to rural areas that many cellular networks don't reach today.

In May, the Commission made another 25MHz of satellite spectrum available for mobile broadband by changing its Wireless Communications Service (WCS) rules. The rules had limited WCS providers to offering fixed wireless services. At the same time, the FCC allowed SDARS (Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service) providers to use terrestrial repeaters. The actions were designed to ensure that WCS and SDARS could coexist in the same band.

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