Executives from more than 20 wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) converged on Washington, D.C., yesterday in an effort to convince Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to shake loose more spectrum — preferably unlicensed spectrum — for use in rural broadband.
The lobbying effort, orchestrated by the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), is taking direct aim at traditional wireless companies ( charging them with “spectrum squatting” and “spectrum warehousing”) and the subsidies given, via the Universal Service Fund, to traditional landline carriers and MSOs.
WISPA’s effort was timed both to follow a rural broadband presentation by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski at last week’s CTIA show in New Orleans (click here for more information), and to coincide with his testimony on the issue before the U.S. Senate.
The WISPA board took a break from its meetings with government officials to hold a roundtable discussion to explain its efforts, which it hopes will result in increased spectrum being made available to its more than 700 members, almost all small companies serving rural communities.
“Our primary challenge is the lack of spectrum,” explained Elizabeth Bowles, president of WISPA and of Little Rock-based WISP Aristotle.net. WISPs are “serving the same number of customers as four years ago, but need four times the spectrum” because of the increased amounts of data flowing across their networks, she argued. “We need spectrum in order to deliver fixed broadband to homes and businesses.”
WISPs currently rely on unlicensed spectrum, noted WISPA Executive Director Rick Harnish, but “there’s a lot of different users sharing that spectrum” for everything down to communications with “tractors driving across a field.” The result, he said, is that “because the unlicensed bands are so narrow, they are almost polluted with all the different users.”
According to Harnish, the solution is to free more unlicensed spectrum for WISPs to use. He and Jack Unger — a WISPA director, chairman of its FCC committee and president of Ask-Wi.com — pointed to the 35.50 GHz-36.50 GHz spectrum, currently used only by the U.S. Navy for its radar needs. The two propose the FCC open those frequencies up for unlicensed use in the interior of the country, where it would not interfere with military needs.
Unger, whose company specializes in the design, installation and support of outdoor wireless wide-area networks nationwide, pointed out that existing wireless broadband gear already can detect military radar and can move to other frequencies when needed.
Auctions, Congestion, USF Woes
Meanwhile, the WISPA executives also put in a pitch for the FCC to radically change the way that it auctions off spectrum, a change that may need an act of Congress to accomplish.
“As most of our members’ businesses have matured over the year, they have begun to invest in licenses,” said Harnish. The problem, he continued, is that “when they (spectrum licenses) are auctioned, they are usually auctioned off in large geographic chunks.” That puts these channels out of the reach of most rural WISPs. “You’re talking about businesses that service small areas,” he pointed out.
The WISPA members also dissed the notion of “spectrum congestion” leading to unavailability of the spectrum they crave. In big cities there may be congestion, they conceded, but in the rural areas that WISPA members serve.
“The cellular companies make claims of spectrum shortage,” said Harnish, but what they really are up to is they “want to eliminate the competition…by getting Congress to order nationwide auctions of spectrum.”
“We do not have data congestion on either the AT&T network or the Verizon network in the state of Arkansas,” Bowles added, as an example to the argument.
Finally, the WISPs lit into the FCC and Congress for the way the Universal Service Fund is spent, specifically to pay for landline service to unserved rural areas.
“To subsidize copper — where we’re going to be doing VoIP and voice over LTE — is kind of wrong-headed,” argued Harnish. Plus, Bowles added, it leaves WISPs competing against other carriers in a situation where “they don’t have to make back their investment, because they haven’t invested anything in it.”
There are an estimated 48 million rural homes without broadband, said Unger, and “we would love to serve them.”
— Stuart Zipper