Continued Lobbying for White Space Spectrum

In May, Microsoft submitted a petition to the FCC calling for some specific changes that will improve the performance of white space spectrum used to provide rural broadband. Microsoft has now taken part in eleven white space trials and makes these recommendations based up on the real-life performance of the white space spectrum. Not included in this filing is Microsoft’s long-standing request for the FCC to allocate three channels of unlicensed white space spectrum in every rural market. The FCC has long favored creating just one channel of unlicensed white space spectrum per market – depending on what’s available.

A number of other parties have subsequently filed comments in support the Microsoft proposals including the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), Next Century Cities, New America’s Open Technology Institute, Tribal Digital Village and the Gigabit Libraries Network. One of the primary entities opposed to earlier Microsoft proposals is the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which worries about interference with TV stations from white space broadband. However, the group now says that it can support some of the new Microsoft proposals.

As a reminder, white space spectrum consists of the unused blocks of spectrum that are located between the frequencies assigned to television stations. Years ago, at the advent of broadcast television, the FCC provided wide buffers between channels to reflect the capability of the transmission technology at the time. Folks my age might remember back to the 1950s when neighboring TV stations would bleed into each other as ghost signals. As radio technology has improved the buffers are now larger than needed and are larger than buffers between other blocks of spectrum. White space spectrum is using those wide buffers.

Microsoft has proposed the following:

  • They are asking for higher power limits for transmissions in cases where the spectrum sits two or more channels away from a TV station signal. Higher power means greater transmission distances from a given transmitter.
  • They are asking for a small power increase for white space channels that sit next to an existing TV signal.
  • They are asking for white space transmitters to be placed as high as 500 meters above ground (1,640 feet). In the US there are only 71 existing towers taller than 1,000 feet.
  • Microsoft has shown that white space spectrum has a lot of promise for supporting agricultural IoT sensors. They are asking the FCC to change to white space rules to allow for narrowband transmission for this purpose.
  • Microsoft is asking that the spectrum be allowed to support portable broadband devices used for applications like school buses, agricultural equipment and IoT for tracking livestock.

The last two requests highlight the complexity of FCC spectrum rules. Most people would probably assume that spectrum licenses allow for any possible use of spectrum. Instead, the FCC specifically defines how spectrum can be used and the rural white space spectrum is currently only allowed for use as a hot spot or for fixed point-to-point data using receiving antennas at a home or business. The FCC has to modify the rules to allow use for IoT for farms sensors, tractors and cows.

The various parties are asking the FCC to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to get comments on the Microsoft proposal. That’s when we’ll learn if any other major parties disagree with the Microsoft proposals. We already know that the cellular companies oppose providing multiple white space bands for anything other than cellular data, but these particular proposals are to allow the existing white space spectrum to operate more efficiently.

The Ongoing Fight Against Network Neutrality

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolThere was such a big ruckus over the net neutrality battle that it’s easy to think that the fight against it is over and that net neutrality is now the rule of the land. But I see news on a regular basis that indicates that the fight is not over.

First, the lawsuit filed by USTelecom is still being fought in court. A few months ago there were comments filed in that case by USTelecom, AT&T, CenturyLink, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the Wireless Association (CTIA), the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), and the American Cable Association (ACA), all of which argued that the FCC had exceeded its authority when it adopted the net neutrality rules. AT&T subsequently dropped this suit as part of the agreement to buy DirecTV,

This is quite a diverse group and they don’t all share identical concerns about the net neutrality rules, but together these trade groups represent both the smallest and the largest telcos, cable companies, cellular providers, and ISPs in the country, all of whom would like to see net neutrality overturned.

And there is no surety that the court will uphold the net neutrality order. I’ve read legal opinions on both sides of the issue that paint a pretty good story about why the FCC ought to be upheld or overturned. Most of these arguments revolve around whether the FCC had the authority to act as they did – with obviously very different opinions on the issue.

And then there are the politicians. The politicians have gotten somewhat quiet on the issue since it has been in the court. But overturning net neutrality is still part of the Republican Party platform and one would expect this issue to come up every time Congress looks at funding the FCC. The House Energy and Commerce Committee will be ” taking a closer look at how the Commission’s net neutrality rules impact our fragile economy, as well as what can be done to foster continued deployment of broadband networks,” in the words of its chairman Rep Greg Walden (R-Ore).  And very recently, Jeb Bush came out against neutrality in one of his stump speeches.

I can understand why carriers would be against some aspects of net neutrality since it puts limitations on the things they can do to make money. But I’ve never understood why any politician would take a strong stance against it. When this is explained to people in the simplest terms – that net neutrality basically says that your ISP can’t make deals that would impede your ability to use the Internet freely – then most people think this is a good idea. I certainly understand that politicians are often beholden to the large corporations that fund them. But one would think that on a topic that is this popular with the general public that politicians would find backdoor ways to fight against something like net neutrality rather than being staunchly and publicly against it.

I’m even a little surprised that the industry is still fighting this battle as hard as they are. The one thing Wall Street hates is uncertainty, and if net neutrality is overturned we would return to a period of major regulatory uncertainty. Wall Street seems to have favored the industry since net neutrality was passed. For example, until the recent market correction the large cable companies had seen a major surge in stock prices, due at least in part to the fact that net neutrality has brought regulatory stability to the market.

There were dire predictions before net neutrality was passed that it would kill capital investments in the industry. And yet we see companies like CenturyLink pouring billions into expanding their fiber networks. And AT&T didn’t massively cut back on capital spending as they had threatened during the net neutrality debate.

As someone who partially makes my living on helping companies keep up with regulations, it seems that net neutrality hasn’t made any drastic changes so far in the way that companies do business. I find it interesting that the WISPA group is so against net neutrality, because I see their member companies expanding like crazy in rural areas and I can’t imagine that any of them have seen and drastic changes due to regulation due to net neutrality.

Changes to Unlicensed Spectrum

Wi-FiEarlier this year in Docket ET No. 13-49 the FCC made a number of changes the unlicensed 5 GHz band of unlicensed spectrum. The docket was intended to unify the rules for using the 5 GHz spectrum. The FCC had made this spectrum available over time in several different chunks and had set different rules for the use of each portion. The FCC was also concerned about interference with some parts of the spectrum with doppler radar and with several government uses of spectrum. Spectrum rules are complex and I don’t want to spend the blog describing the changes in detail. But in the end, the FCC made some changes that wireless ISPS (WISPs) claim are going to kill the spectrum for rural use.

Comments filed by WISPA, the national association for WISPs claim that the changes that the FCC is making to the 5725 – 5850 MHz band is going to devastate rural data delivery from WISPs. The FCC is mandating that new equipment going forward use lower power and also use better filters to reduce out-of-band emissions. And WISPA is correct about what that means. If you understand the physics of wireless spectrum, each of those changes is going to reduce both the distance and the bandwidth that can be achieved with this slice of spectrum. I didn’t get out my calculator and spend an hour doing the math, but WISPA’s claim that this is going to reduce the effective distance for the 5 GHz band to about 3 miles seems like a reasonable estimate, which is also supported by several manufacturers of the equipment.

Some background might be of use in this discussion. WISPs can use three different bands of spectrum for delivering wireless data – 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. The two lower bands generally get congested fairly easy because there are a lot of other commercial applications using them. Plus, those two spectrums can’t go very far and still deliver significant bandwidth. And so to the extent they use those spectrums, WISPs tend to use them for customers residing closer to their towers. They save the 5 GHz spectrum for customers who are farther away and they use it for backhaul between towers. The piece of spectrum in question can be used to deliver a few Mbps to a customer up to ten miles from a transmitter. If you are a rural customer, getting 2 – 4 Mbps from a WISP still beats the heck out of dial-up.

Customers closer to a WISP transmitter can get decent bandwidth. About the fastest speed I have ever witnessed from a WISP was 30 Mbps, but it’s much more typical for customers within a reasonable distance from a tower to get something like 10 Mbps. That is a decent bandwidth product in today’s rural environment, although one has to wonder what that is going to feel like a decade from now.

Readers of this blog probably know that I spent ten years living in the Virgin Islands and my data connection there came from a WISP. On thing I saw there is the short life span of the wireless CPE at the home. In the ten years I was there I had three different receivers installed (one at the end) which means that my CPE lasted around 5 years. And the Virgin Islands is not a harsh environment since it’s around 85 degrees every day, unlike a lot of the US which has both freezing winters and hot summers. So the average WISP will need to phase in the new CPE to all customers over the next five to seven years as the old customer CPE dies. And they will need to use the new equipment for new customers.

That will be devastating to a WISP business plan. The manufacturers say that the new receivers may cost as much as $300 more to comply with the filtering requirements. I take that estimate with a grain of salt, but no doubt the equipment is going to cost more. But the real issue is the reduced distance and reduced bandwidth. Many, but not all, WISPs operate on very tight margins. They don’t have a lot of cash reserves and they rely on cash flow from customers to eke out enough extra cash to keep growing. They basically grow their businesses over time by rolling profits back into the business.

If these changes mean that WISPs can’t serve customers more than 3 miles from an existing antenna, there is a good chance that a lot of them are going to fail. They will be faced with either building a lot of new antennas to create smaller 3-mile circles or else they will have to abandon customers more than three miles away.

Obviously spectrum is in the purview of the FCC and some of the reasons why they are changing this spectrum are surely valid. But in this case they created an entire industry that relied upon the higher power level of the gear to justify a business plan and now they want to take that away. This is not going to be a good change for rural customers since over time many of them are going to lose their only option for broadband. While it is important to be sensitive to interference issues, one has to wonder how much interference there is out in the farm areas where these networks have been deployed. This impacts of this change that WISPA is warning about will be a step backward for rural America and rural bandwidth.