The Federal Communications Commission today voted unanimously to revise a set of rules governing wireless spectrum to open a portion of the airwaves for mobile broadband service.
Additionally, at its monthly meeting the FCC produced a report outlining the progress that wireless carriers have made toward their commitment to provide customers with notices about looming overage charges, an issue the agency has dubbed "bill shock."
In its spectrum decision, the commission affirmed a plan jointly submitted by AT&T and satellite-radio provider Sirius XM earlier this year to resolve concerns about inference in the 2.3 GHz band. In doing so, the FCC paved the way to make 30 MHz of Wireless Communications Service (WCS) spectrum available for 4G LTE mobile broadband service.
"Making this particular spectrum available for broadband will help sustain U.S. mobile leadership in part because the U.S. is leading the way in developing LTE standards for the WCS band," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. "Today's order frees up spectrum by removing regulatory barriers to flexible use of spectrum for broadband, an approach that we are seeking to implement across the board, that can be as valuable as clearing and reallocating new bands of spectrum."
Wednesday's action continues the FCC's work to make more spectrum available for mobile broadband, an effort the agency has undertaken in response to the spike in consumption of wireless data that carriers have warned threatens to overwhelm their networks if they don't gain access to more capacity.
Last month, the FCC launched a rulemaking proceeding to develop guidelines for a series of auctions to reallocate spectrum from television broadcasters to wireless carriers. The agency has set the overarching goals of freeing up 300 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband by 2015, and 500 MHz by 2020.
That agenda meshes with the argument Genachowski has recently made that broadband speeds and capacity are a pillar of U.S. competitiveness in the global economy. And the FCC under his watch has left no confusion that wireless will be a crucial driver of the broadband ecosystem.
"Over the past four years, the U.S. has regained global leadership in mobile, setting the pace in key areas like the apps economy, mobile operating systems and the rollout of 4G LTE networks at scale," Genachowski said. "The U.S. has become the world's testbed for 4G LTE services and applications, which is vital for U.S. innovation, leadership, and for sustainability -- job creation. And to maintain our leadership, and to spur future innovation, we need to ensure that the U.S. has a strategic bandwidth advantage -- advanced, high-capacity and ubiquitous broadband. That requires maximizing the value of the airwaves and ensuring that the spectrum crunch doesn't slow growth in the mobile economy."
The FCC's action appears to resolve a long-simmering dispute between AT&T and Sirius XM concerning the potential for LTE traffic in the contested band to interfere with satellite-radio transmissions.
"The era of regulatory dispute and uncertainty in the WCS band is finally drawing to a close," Joan Marsh, AT&T's vice president of federal regulatory issues, said in a statement.
Marsh said that AT&T plans to deliver service in the WCS band as early as three years from now.
Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs with CTIA, the principal trade association representing the wireless industry, hailed the FCC's move as another mark of progress in the group's policy agenda of making new spectrum available to its members.
"Freeing up underutilized spectrum is a critical component in the effort to meet the rapidly-escalating demand for mobile broadband services," he said in a statement. "Whether through removing regulatory barriers or clearing underutilized spectrum in bands that can be used for mobile services, delivering additional spectrum for mobile broadband allows the U.S. wireless industry to invest billions of dollars every year and deploy world-leading networks, resulting in significant economic benefits for U.S. consumers and businesses."
Carriers Agree to Warn Customers About Overage Charges
In the item on bill shock, FCC staffers reported that all carriers represented by CTIA that had entered into an agreement to issue notices to consumers warning that they were on track to incur overage charges had fulfilled the first part of their commitment. Under that agreement, reached with the public-interest group Consumers Union, the participating carriers had pledged to provide notices in two of the four areas of voice, text, data and international roaming by Oct. 17, and to deliver warnings about all four by April 2013.
The bill shock initiative is part of a broader "consumer empowerment agenda" underway at the FCC, and comes in response to complaints and confusion about wireless billing practices.
"[I]t is frighteningly easy to misunderstand your plan, surpass plan limits and wind up paying the price," said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
The FCC on Wednesday also approved a report and order to establish a do-not-call registry to exclude telephone lines dedicated to public-safety purposes from autodialed calls, which the commissioners noted can overwhelm emergency networks and prevent vital communications from getting through without delay. Congress directed the FCC to establish the do-not-call registry to shield public-safety answering points, or PSAPs, from robocalls in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.