There is an adage in the rough-and-tumble world of Washington, D.C., wireless politics. If a smaller player that has less power wants to succeed, it needs to play the public safety card. In the First Responder Network (FirstNet), the proposed nationwide public safety network, rural wireless carriers may have found another arrow for their quiver as they battle to deploy LTE in the Lower 700-MHz band.
“The current, and potentially future, dearth of rural LTE networks will be problematic not only for potential customers and for commercial licensees in rural markets, but also for public safety users who may desire to roam on commercial systems in those areas,” LeRoy Carlson, chairman, U.S. Cellular, told the Senate Commerce communications subcommittee at an April 9 hearing on the state of rural communications.
With FirstNet required to enter into roaming agreements with commercial providers to ensure nationwide coverage, rural carriers will be essential to the goal of ubiquitous coverage.
“A lack of interoperability therefore could impede first responders’ ability to respond to emergencies,” Carlson said.
A lack of interoperability in the 700-MHz band is reducing the availability of LTE handsets, which is impeding and, in some cases, halting the build out of rural LTE cellular systems, Calson said at the hearing.
“Significant opportunities for small and regional carriers – who otherwise would be in a position to provide robust competition to the dominant national carriers – have been lost due to the artificial barriers created by their inability to obtain devices capable of operating on their spectrum holdings,” Carlson said. “The importance of continuing to advance robust competition is especially crucial at this time given that the wireless industry is in its most precarious competitive state in over a decade.”
The interoperability issues stem from two separate incompatible band classes for LTE that were developed in the lower 700-MHz band. The lack of interoperability between Band 12 and Band 17 has caused a split between large and small wireless carriers that has left many small carriers with a lack of LTE handsets to sell on their spectrum. As a result, a number of Lower A Block licensees were compelled to request an extension of their interim construction benchmark deadlines, which the FCC recently granted.
“Unfortunately, at this time, the potential for Lower 700-MHz A Block deployments to spur increased competition has not come to fruition because additional competitive carrier LTE deployments have been delayed and/or limited by the continued fragmentation of the Lower 700-MHz spectrum band,” Carlson said.
Interestingly enough, while Carlson stood in solidarity with rural carrier have-nots, his company, U.S. Cellular, has proven to be an exception, launching an LTE Band 12 network in 2012 with King Street Wireless, with a small cache of LTE phones.
“Even [U.S. Cellular] remains constrained in its ability to gain access to a wide variety of LTE-capable devices,” Carlson said.
Without interoperability, Carlson asserted, small, regional wireless carriers will never have the critical mass to drive development of low-cost, competitive LTE handsets, therefore killing off the deployment of LTE in the lower A band.