The Federal Communications Commission is stepping in to take control of precisely how AT&T and Verizon are handling its spectrum in the 700 MHz sector.
The issue is explained well by Marguerite Reardon at CNET. The spectrum is divided into two pieces. The two biggest wireless telcos control one and small rural carriers share the other. The rural carriers want the FCC to make equipment interoperable on both. She focuses on AT&T, and writes:
AT&T has argued in the past that the interference issues are too great and that devices cannot be forced to use the same exact radio technology that will operate across the entire lower portion of the 700 MHz band of spectrum.
The smaller carriers want those incompatibilities to be hashed out. Simply, their deployment of 4G LTE will be easier if they can roam into AT&T's territory and use the same equipment. The Sci-Tech Today piece covering the move by the FCC - which was a 3-0 vote to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the issue - suggests that the move is aimed as much at Verizon Wireless as AT&T.
The bottom line is that the fate of the smaller firms will be much improved if they can more easily get access to the networks and take advantage of the economies of scale that would be realized if the all the telephone companies used the same technology. Dan Seifert sums up the issue at Mobile Burn:
Interoperability between the different classes of 700MHz spectrum would help other carriers build devices that can roam on either AT&T or Verizon's networks, instead of having to choose one or the other. T-Mobile also notes that interoperability would also help emergency first responders, since their equipment would work on either Verizon or AT&T's network.
Verizon, apparently, is trying to use the spectrum as a wholesale supplier to smaller operators. It is not clear if all the rural carriers mentioned in this TeleGeography roundup are operating in the 700 MHz band, but the sense is that they are. According to the piece - which relies on Fierce Broadband Wireless reports - LTE rollouts are slated under a Verizon program in Oklahoma (Pioneer Cellular) and Wisconsin (Cellcom). Other Verizon 4G small partner programs are planned for Alaska (Matanuska Telephone) and Montana (Sagebrush Cellular).
The bottom line is that the smaller phone companies benefit from an association with their larger brethren, either through partnerships or simply by interoperating. Whether or not that will be the case in the 700 MHz band remains to be seen.