Coming Soon: New Kids on the (H) Block?

Advanced Wireless Services proposed for H Block spectrum – as long as the NKOTHB are in sync with PCS

Nearly a year ago Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. The 47% famously referred to by former Candidate Romney may be surprised to learn that more than 53% of the text of the law dealt with matters largely unrelated to tax relief or job creation. By contrast, Title VI of the law – what we in the biz refer to as the “Spectrum Act” – comprises a whopping 55 out of the law’s 102 pages. That amounts to nearly 54% by our math (don’t worry, we used a calculator). Not surprisingly, we have reported on numerous aspects of the Spectrum Act here over the last year. 

Don’t fret if you’ve missed out – there’s plenty more Spectrum Act fun still to come.

For example, we have the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), released last month and recently published in the Federal Register, seeking comment on proposed service rules for the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) H Block spectrum. Licenses in the block are anticipated to be offered for competitive bidding in 2013.

Pat yourself on the back – but not too hard – if you deduced that the NPRM and anticipated AWS H Block spectrum auction are products of the Spectrum Act. Hence, the law directs the FCC to “unleash” (or grant, if you prefer) new initial licenses in the AWS H Block (among others) within three years of the Spectrum Act’s passage. The goal is to “unleash more spectrum for broadband” because doing so is supposedly “essential” to the achievement of “economic growth, job creation and global competitiveness” and nirvana generally.  (To all the “leashed” spectrum out there yearning for freedom – don’t worry, your time will come.) The NPRM is the FCC’s first step in implementing this particular Spectrum Act directive.

The AWS H Block comprises the spectrum blocks at 1915-1920 MHz (Lower H Block) and 1995-2000 MHz (Upper H Block). For those new to the block, the AWS H Block is actually adjacent to the PCS-block; the “H” is a continuation of the PCS-block letter designations. 

This isn’t the first time the Commission has proposed service rules for the H Block. Comments were solicited back in 2004, and again in a follow-up in 2008. However, due to the passage of time and advances in technology, the Commission figures it’s a good idea to revisit H Block issues again, including the question of whether “harmful interference” to the neighboring PCS-block may occur.

The Spectrum Act expects residents in the AWS H Block to play nice with their PCS neighbors. In fact, the Act prohibits the Commission from granting initial licenses if it should determine that licensing in the H Block would cause harmful interference to commercial mobile service licensees in the PCS Downlink band (1930-1995 MHz). The Commission has tentatively concluded that licensing in the Upper H Block will not cause harmful interference to the PCS Downlink band. The Commission bases this tentative conclusion on the fact that, in previous proceedings, no contrary technical data/analyses were submitted. (Note: AT&T appears to disagree with the FCC’s conclusion.) 

The potential for harmful interference from the Lower H Block, on the other hand, has been hotly debated, and the various PCS licensees have proposed different technical rules on how this result might be avoided. Which of those proposals would work best to avoid harmful interference from the Lower H Block (a matter the PCS licensees haven’t been able to agree on so far) is an issue on which the NPRM seeks comment. The outcome of this debate may ultimately determine the fate of the H Block spectrum.

It should be noted that this NPRM was a companion to the Commission’s simultaneous decision to re-purpose the adjacent 2000-2020 MHz band for terrestrial operations. This band was purchased as a primarily mobile satellite band by DISH Network about a year ago. The FCC has now converted it to satellite and terrestrial use and re-dubbed it the “AWS-4” band. Before doing so, however, the Commission bent over backwards to ensure that terrestrial operations from AWS-4 would not interfere with the yet-to-be created H Block.

If the Commission decides, after evaluating the comments filed in response to the NPRM, that the new kids on the H Block won’t play nice with the kids in the PCS neighborhood, the Spectrum Act’s desired unleashing of spectrum may be stymied. However, rather than adopt an “all-or-nothing” approach, the Commission has offered up an alternative. The NPRM tentatively concludes that the Spectrum Act would still require the Commission to auction and license half of the H Block spectrum even if the other half were found to cause harmful interference to the PCS Downlink band. The remaining question would then be: if one portion of the H Block gets “unleashed,” what should the Commission do with other? (The NPRM doesn’t presume which of the two portions – upper or lower – would necessarily be “unleashed” first in this half-block auction scenario.) Comments are solicited on the appropriate use for such spectrum and/or whether it should be designated for Unlicensed PCS.

Some other proposals open for comment in the NPRM include:

  • licensing of the H Block for exclusive geographic areas by Economic Areas;
  • an interim (within 4 years) buildout requirement to offer service and signal coverage to at least 40% of the population;
  • a final buildout requirement of 70% coverage;
  • cost-sharing formulas; and
  • licensing and operating rules. 

Take a look at the NPRM for the full list of issues/proposals on which comments are being sought.

Comments are currently due by February 6, 2013 and reply comments are due by March 6, 2013.

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