Its sieve-like “commitment” to interoperability leaves AT&T multiple convenient ways to get off the hook.

For years, the build-out process for 700 MHz wireless networks has been slowed because of interoperability concerns. The FCC has made noises about possible regulatory resolutions, but so far those noises have not turned into agency action. So now a couple of the private players have announced their own solution. 

FCC Acting Chairwoman Clyburn has loudly proclaimed that that “solution will resolve the lack of interoperability in the lower 700 MHz band in the most efficient manner”. But heads up – as the Chairwoman correctly notes, this is a “voluntary industry solution”. Here, “voluntary” is used in its conventional meaning (as opposed to when the Enforcement Bureau refers euphemistically to the “voluntary contributions” it extracts from targets of its investigations). 

Let’s peek behind the curtain to see what we’re actually getting, shall we?

[Blogmeister’s Note: If you’re new to the whole interoperability problem, check out our post from March, 2012 for some useful background.]

Small carriers holding 700 MHz licenses have long complained that it isn’t viable for them to build out their licenses unless there is interoperability with nationwide carriers. Small carriers operate in Band Class 12. AT&T and Verizon Wireless’s 700 MHz networks operate in Band Classes 17 and 13, respectively. Due to the different technologies and wireless protocols used, none of the classes can talk to each other. So user devices manufactured for Band Class 17 can’t operate on the networks of the smaller entities, even though Band Class 12 and 17 devices both operate on the B and C Blocks.

The recently-announced interoperability solution looks to fix that, at least for Band Classes 12 and 17 (which operate in the Lower 700 MHz B and C Bands). In separate “commitment letters”, AT&T and DISH both have made certain commitments subject to certain conditions. AT&T’s letter is the more interesting of the two as it contains very positive developments for 700 MHz interoperability if fully realized. DISH offers to implement voluntary power reductions to make the whole deal work.

What exactly does AT&T have in mind? 

AT&T dangles the prospect of lower 700 MHz interoperability. In particular, it spreads on the table an attractive set of steps it’s willing to take:

  • AT&T will implement its new Multi-Frequency Band Indicator (MFBI) features throughout its network by September 30, 2015.  According to AT&T, the MFBI capabilities will permit AT&T’s network to operate simultaneously as Band Class 12 and 17 networks, and support devices in both bands. 
  • Once MBFI has been fully implemented, AT&T will begin providing LTE roaming Band Class 12 devices, and begin a two-year “Band Class 12 device roll-out period”.
  • During the first year of the Band Class 12 device roll-out period, AT&T commits to having 50% of its handsets that operate on the 700 MHz bands to be Band Class 12 capable.  During the second year of the device roll-out, AT&T will have 75% of its 700 MHz devices Band Class 12 capable.  After the two year device roll out period, AT&T states that all of its 700 MHz devices will be Band Class 12 capable.  AT&T excludes “M-two-M” (or M2M) devices from its commitment.

Interoperability heaven, right? Not so fast.

When AT&T acquired its lower 700 MHz D and E Block licenses, the FCC restricted AT&T to operating those licenses under the same power and antenna height restrictions that apply to lower 700 MHz A and B block licenses, and also precluded use of the licenses for uplink transmissions.  AT&T would like to operate all E block licenses to modify that. So as a condition to making good on its interoperability “commitments”, AT&T is insisting that the FCC adopt an order by December 31, 2013 requiring that all E block licensees transmitting a signal with an emission bandwidth greater than one megahertz are restricted to an ERP of 1,000 to 2,000 watts/MHz and an antenna height of 305 meters above average terrain.  

And if the Commission doesn’t adopt such an order by December 31, or if it does adopt such an order but the order is subject to appellate review, then AT&T “reserves the right to declare these commitments null and void”.

Sort of cheapens the concept of “commitment”. Not what you’d call totally “enforceable”. If AT&T were to back off some or all of its offers, the FCC’s only recourse would be to proceed with a rulemaking to implement its own 700 MHz interoperability rules. Bear in mind that the Commission has had an open proceeding looking into such rules since March, 2012. In other words, that approach doesn’t seem likely to produce any near-term results.

How big is the escape hatch that AT&T has provided itself? First, the notion of getting the FCC to adopt an order along the lines AT&T is looking for by December 31, 2013 is optimistic at best. The Commission is not known for prompt action, and let’s not forget that a new Chairman (along with a new Republican Commissioner) is likely to take over sometime between now and then. That kind of circumstance can slow things down at the agency.

And even if the Commission were to adopt AT&T’s desired order, AT&T is insisting that that order not be “subject to appellate review”. The order in question would be a rulemaking order. Before anybody could appeal it, the order would have to be published in the Federal Register, a process which often takes several weeks. And once the order is published, would-be appellants have 60 days in which to file their petitions for review. That considerably stretches AT&T’s ability to get out from its “commitments”. And if anybody were to file an appeal, the appellate process would ordinarily drag on for at least 12-18 months.

In addition, AT&T could delay the implementation of the Band Class 12 roll-out for six months if it were to determine that the MFBI implementation would result in “significant negative customer impact.”  AT&T further states that if it encounters “obstacles beyond its control” that threatens its ability to meet its commitments, or undermines the quality of its services, then it reserves the right to “seek an extension of time or a waiver” as appropriate.  In other words, the way AT&T has set up its “commitment” enables it to change its timeframes to suit its own schedule simply by sending the FCC another letter.

Notwithstanding the sieve-like nature of AT&T’s “commitment”, it still provides the industry with some basis for hope that the 700 MHz interoperability problem may be resolved sooner rather than later. We’re crossing our fingers that 700 MHz interoperability will come to pass without too much delay.