Regulators OK T-Mobile testing of shared use of airwaves

WASHINGTON Wed Aug 15, 2012 5:01pm EDT

Signage for a T-Mobile store is pictured in downtown Los Angeles, California August 31, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Signage for a T-Mobile store is pictured in downtown Los Angeles, California August 31, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. communications regulators will allow T-Mobile USA to test the impact of commercial wireless broadband on a highly sought after swatch of airwaves currently used for government operations, the company said on Wednesday.

Testing by T-Mobile, the U.S. unit of Deutsche Telekom AG (DTEGn.DE), would gauge potential opportunities and challenges for wireless carriers looking to deploy next generation 4G wireless services on the 1755-1850 megahertz band, while sharing the airwaves with existing government users.

"The testing we propose is part of an industry-wide effort to build critical understanding of operations in this band, and we will be working with other carriers and equipment manufacturers moving ahead," said Tom Sugrue, T-Mobile's senior vice president of government affairs.

The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) earlier this year said the 1755-1850 MHz band would be capable of supporting wireless broadband services.

The band is the last contiguous block of federal airwaves below 3 gigahertz - the spectrum preferred by the wireless industry - that the government has to work with, NTIA has said.

The agency in March proposed a combination of relocating some federal systems and allowing others to share spectrum with commercial service providers, as it would likely be too costly and time-consuming to relocate all of the government operations to alternative spectrum bands.

More than 20 federal agencies currently hold more than 3,100 individual frequency assignments within the spectrum band. The uses include critical government functions such as law enforcement surveillance, military tactical communications, air combat training and precision-guided munitions.

A White House advisory panel last month said that the traditional practice of relocating government operations to alternative spectrum bands to make way for commercial uses was not sustainable.

"By granting the first authorization of testing in the 1755-1780 MHz band, the commission hopes to facilitate commercial mobile broadband services in that band, which would significantly benefit millions of U.S. wireless consumers and help drive the mobile innovation economy," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.

Approval of T-Mobile's pilot program is part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to free up more airwaves to meet the booming demand for wireless devices like Apple Inc's (AAPL.O) iPad and Google Inc's (GOOG.O) suite of Android-powered smartphones.

The wireless industry has clamored for access to more airwaves to stave off a looming spectrum crunch that would mean clogged networks, more dropped calls and slower connection speeds for wireless customers.

But carriers have said they prefer to have full control over the airwaves they use, warning that restrictions put in place to protect government operations could lower the value of the spectrum and discourage companies from bidding.

The FCC, which manages commercial spectrum licenses, and the Commerce Department, which oversees government spectrum, have been working together to locate unused airwaves.

(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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