Telecoms have Little to Fear from a National “Super WiFi” System
by Mark W. Hibben
Not So Super WiFi
Recently Nate Wooley who blogs for Motley Fool published an article (World Wide Wireless and Worried Telecoms) drawing the seemingly logical conclusion that big telecom companies such as AT&T and Verizon have something to fear from an FCC proposed “Super WiFi” system that he inferred would make broadband Internet access ubiquitous and free. In fact, the major wireless carriers are the most likely operators and beneficiaries of any national “Super WiFi” systems, which the carriers will only make available to subscribers for a monthly fee.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski likes to call the proposed system “Super WiFi”, but the technical term used in FCC documents is TV Band Devices, since they are intended to be used on unused broadcast television channels. In most rural areas of the US, almost all the channels are vacant, and even in urban areas, a large number of channels are unused. The Internet connection speed of a TV Band Device is very much a function of the number of available TV channels at the Device's location. Readers interested in more info about TV Band Devices can read an article I wrote on the subject in 2010.
The Federal Government's role in TV Band Devices is limited to rule-making by the FCC. There is no national system per se. FCC rules only specify classes of TV band devices: the fixed base station, the home base station, and the mobile (personal) device. No current WiFi enabled devices conform to the specifications for TV Band Devices or will work with them.
The fixed base station is intended for commercial use and can service mobile client devices in what is termed a Regional Area Network (RAN) within approximately a 30 km radius. Because even fixed base stations are unlicensed, anyone can set up a RAN, such as a local government, a Wireless Internet Service Provider, or a large or small business. The rules defining operating power and antenna height above ground for fixed base stations make it convenient to overlay RANs onto the existing network of cellular antenna towers, a point I'll come back to.
Most RAN operators will likely charge a fee for access to their systems. One of the earliest intended uses of TV Band RANs was to deliver broadband Internet access to sparsely populated rural areas. Urban areas are a different matter. There just isn't enough data bandwidth available in a TV Band RAN to provide “always on” Internet service to an urban area RAN. Part of the problem is the decreased availability of unused TV channels, and part is the sheer number of prospective users.
Broadband access will have to be brief and intermittent, and use of TV Band RANs by mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets is a usage scenario that does work, given the usual limitations on data downloads imposed by cellular carriers. Since fixed base station RAN antennas will be mountable on cellular towers, one can easily envisage cellular carriers such as AT&T and Verizon bundling TV Band internet access with other cellular radio services, for a monthly fee.
So Why are the Telecoms Whining?
In the above usage scenario, the big telecoms become the logical operators and beneficiaries of most of the new TV Band RANs, and the RANs potentially can be merged into an actual national network or networks, albeit private. This amounts to a free spectrum grab by the telecoms at the expense of the old tech television broadcasters. So why did AT&T in concert with other telecoms recently write a letter to the FCC complaining about the FCC's plans and asking for the privilege of paying for (licensed) TV band spectrum that the government is willing to give them (unlicensed) for free? The answer is complicated, and has to do with the regulatory mechanism that the FCC has put in place to govern RAN operators.
When a RAN operator erects a TV Band Fixed Station system, the FCC requires that the station register with a national database. Registration doesn't require that the station have any users or viable commercial purpose. The station merely has to report it's exact location, to within some meters, and the TV channels it intends to use, assuming they are not already in use. As far as I can tell, from a careful reading of the FCC rules, this action effectively locks out any competitors from using the same TV channels in the same or an overlapping region serviced by the existing RAN. Thus, TV band RAN spectrum is allocated on a first come, first served basis for a given locale.
A Spectrum Rush in the Making
If this sounds messy, or confusing, or subject to protracted litigation by plaintiffs convinced they were locked out unfairly, I think the answer is: all of the above. What the FCC is proposing is the spectrum equivalent of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893, in which telecoms and other businesses rush to erect TV Band RANs just to get them registered in the data base.
In this race, the advantage will go to the companies that already own and operate the towers on which the telecoms' cellular antennas are mounted. In the United States, 88% of the cellular radio towers are owned by just two companies, American Tower and Crown Castle International. These are the companies positioned to “get there firstest with the mostest” in the TV Band RAN race.
It's no wonder that major telecoms find this situation objectionable. Although the tower companies can't make effective commercial use of the TV Band RANs, they can still hold them hostage for exorbitant fees. If the tower companies put the individual RANs out for competitive bidding, it may be difficult or impossible for any of the national wireless carriers to put together a national RAN-based network with reasonably contiguous coverage.
The chaos that will result from the FCC's current unlicensed approach will almost certainly delay development of useful national RAN networks, and make it hard for device makers to plan for incorporation of TV Band client devices into their smart phones and tablets. But regardless of whether the FCC moves forward with the current plan, as appears likely, or yields to the lobbying of the telecoms, the major telecoms will be the principal beneficiaries of the TV Band RAN networks in the end, since only they can operate them.