December 8, 2016 —
As we move into the fourth stage of the TV spectrum incentive auction, one thing is obvious. The wireless industry does not value the spectrum enough to meet the targets set by the broadcasters. From stage one when amount bid was less than 25 percent of the target to the third stage where it was less than fifty percent, the sides are still not too close.
The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which included several provisions for increasing the amount of spectrum available for broadband wireless service, authorized the FCC to use incentive auctions in which TV broadcasters would receive compensation for giving up the use of their airwaves to mobile broadband users. There were several factors that doomed this auction to be less successful than it could have been.
First, the 39-month transition period demanded by broadcasters to move off of the 600 MHz spectrum is a pretty long time for the carriers to wait to put the spectrum to work after they have purchased it.
Second, the size of the spectrum licenses are not in line with what the wireless industry needs. The carriers need a hell of a lot more spectrum than what can be pieced together in these blocks. It’s more like 100’s of megahertz.
Third, this spectrum might be good for a new entrant into mobile services that is trying to cover as much area as possible with the fewest sites as possible. But most of the carriers that have the money to buy the spectrum are already built out coverage-wise and are looking to densify their networks. They are looking for higher frequencies and more of them for a lot less money in the AWS bands and above, and channel sizes of 20 megahertz to 200 megahertz are becoming the sweet spot.
Fourth, it is not a question of whether the carriers have the money or not. They are not going to be spending a lot of money for low-band spectrum that they don’t need. However, I don’t believe the auction will fail. As the amount of spectrum up for auction comes down and the target price comes down, it will eventually match the amount bid. Equilibrium will be found.
I am optimistic about all of the actions the government is taking to make spectrum available for broadband wireless. The FCC is getting creative and making it happen through licensed and unlicensed spectrum, as well as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, which is something in between. Changing the use of a spectrum block is not an easy thing. The FCC is doing a good job of making it happen.
Jeff Eisenach and Mark Jamison probably will become two new FCC commissioners. How do we know this? Because President-elect Donald Trump named them his transition team to oversee his administration’s FCC and Telecommunications policy agenda.
Eisenach has a consulting history with Verizon and with the GMSA wireless Communications membership organization. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Virginia. Eisenbach previously served in presidential transition teams. It looks to me as though he will become a Trump nominee to the commission or, if not, he will have a hand in selecting commissioners.
Jamison, a professor at the University of Florida, opposes net neutrality, among other policies. He previously worked for three years at Sprint as a lobbyist who focused on landline policy.
If Eisenbach and Jamison are any indication, the folks running the FCC will reflect more territorial attitudes, such as: “eat what you kill,” “build your own network” and “it’s all proprietary.”
Thus, things will change.
I would expect to see larger carriers, cable companies and fiber giants investing more in their own fiber as the cost of using a competitor’s fiber increases, or as the fear of the increase becomes tangible. This is good news for tower companies that already own a lot of fiber as well as those that will be encouraged to do so. It is also good news for those companies that are positioned to acquire more fiber as trusted allies of the carriers.
What I don’t see changing much are well established and fairly well accepted regulatory matters, including the FCC antenna site application shot clock, the National Environmental Policy Act, state historic preservation officer roles and antenna collocation by right. In the next four or more years, high-level changes may come on some larger issues, such as net neutrality, and on smaller issues, such as doing away with set-top cable TV box rentals and other consumer-friendly matters. Just cough up the $7 to $9 a month.
We’ll probably see reduced FCC support for rural broadband communications deployment issues, including the Community Connections Grant and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Connect America Fund. Why should the “haves” help out the “have-nots”? It is a fair question.
You chose to live in a rural area, not me. Changes in funding of these kinds of projects will disappoint many. However, core to the antenna siting industry they are not.
I envision a reduction in the regulatory hurdles carriers face from municipalities as the FCC curbs local authority to question and slow down some projects. I expect the wireless infrastructure business to strengthen, at least to some degree. It could benefit from the incoming president’s stated preference for U.S.-based manufacturing and services.
It takes a lot of energy and time to move the D.C. pendulum and make meaningful, important and lasting changes by repealing the laws you don’t like and replacing other long lasting laws. Perhaps the law or regulation should have not existed in the first place. Chances are that a law or regulation was passed in the first place because of a need —perhaps a need different than yours. But still, a need.
I hope that whatever political gyrations are yet to come will spare rules affecting worker safety. Having one wireless carrier buying another is one thing; getting home safely should never be in doubt.
Safe and happy holidays to all.
The APCO International Annual Conference & Expo — being held this week — holds a special place in my heart. So, if you’re still reading, you’ll have to indulge me as I share a small rant, or a detailed reflective appreciation for the public safety wireless communications industry. It all depends on your perspective.
The public safety wireless communications industry has never pushed the technology envelope. Back in the day, it was a non-encrypted FM channel that was 25 kHz wide. That means almost anyone, including so-called radio hackers, could listen to the local public safety dispatch communications. You might think such listening would pose a safety problem; however, almost all public safety wireless communications avoided using identifying information that would violate personal privacy. In many ways, the ability to listen in this way was helpful because the non-encrypted dispatch communications allowed volunteers to learn of an incident and respond appropriately. All it took was a $100 scanner from Radio Shack. These days were good for us tower folks because the public safety wireless networks were technically interchangeable with land mobile radio systems. They had good outdoor coverage that was designed to work with a 50-watt transceiver in a truck. That made for a nice RF link budget.
As times changed, the FCC mandated the use of narrowband radio channels with a 12.5- kHz bandwidth instead of a proper FM channel. Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal, technically, but as the need to move to digital modulations became clear, APCO Project 25 (P25) was born. The first cries for financial assistance were raised. For non-geeks, a voice channel is about 6 kHz wide, and the analog spectrum required is about twice the desired modulation (FM) bandwidth. That relationship changes with digital modulation. It was easy to deduce from proposed FCC rules during the creation of P25 that even with more narrow channels, more spectral efficiency would be required, essentially mandating digital modulation. All would still be good in our world. All of the radio equipment and antennas still look like the same stuff we’ve had for years.
Many smaller jurisdictions, and many big ones, too, became frustrated and confused by the digital revolution. Some still are. For many municipalities, not much has changed in 15 or 20 years, except they spent a lot of money on wireless equipment with digital modulation without obtaining much additional functionality. The radio link budget is not much different (although it’s better by 10 to 15 dB), so P25 extends much better coverage into buildings and other places where analog FM systems were not intended to work. FM systems typically were designed to work only outdoors.
Now, the promise of public safety LTE is a reality. LTE is a much more efficient modulation, allowing about five bits of data for each hertz of spectrum. So, roughly, 10 MHz can carry about 50 megabits of data. And wider the RF channel, (5 MHz, 10 MHz or 20 MHz or more) the more efficient LTE becomes. For video, voice and file transmission, the bandwidth needs are dynamic. With digital modulation, a much weaker signal can cover a lot more area and extend signals more effectively into previously difficult-to-reach areas, such as parking garages, malls and home basements.
Many challenges abound for LTE in the public safety space. What will the bandwidth be used for? If not a dispatcher, who will decide what video should be shown? And how will the access to the bandwidth be prioritized — on dedicated networks, or on commercial networks with the dollar-meter running? Technology is offering a delivery mode with some impressive capabilities. The question is: How efficiently will it be used?
With my infrastructure industry hat on, I remain optimistic about the future antenna site needs of the public safety wireless communications community’s LTE deployment. The way the FirstNet network is being designed and built, it should look like nothing more than an additional carrier with a lot more security and reliability requirements.
One thing is for sure: Our public safety partners are not going to be a decreasing line item on the old income sheet. It all evolves. Usually for the better. And this future seems a lot better.