With Shared, Licensed, Unlicensed Spectrum, Who will Not be Able to Become a "Mobile" Service Provider?

Since 2010, there has been movement towards possibly freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum now primarily under the control of federal government agencies for potential use by private sector users on shared basis.

Such shared spectrum access would allow existing licensees to retain primary use of their licensed frequencies, but also allow commercial users access when primary licensees do not need the capacity.

Such spectrum sharing approaches are the newest idea in spectrum allocation policies that primarily have relied on exclusive licenses, and partly on unlicensed approaches.

The big innovation is the concept that a shared access system will deliver results faster, at lower cost, than clearing spectrum, moving  licensed users to new bands, and then allowing new uses of cleared spectrum.

Current thinking is that current licensed users would have priority, while other users could use spectrum when it was available and not needed by primary licensees. Among the ideas for allowing such access is that perhaps new users could pay for secondary rights, while fully non-licensed use would be possible for users who do not have any quality of service guarantees.

At the moment, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is working on a plan that would make about 100 megahertz of spectrum available for shared small cell use in the 3.5 GHz band currently used primarily for military radar systems.

NTIA also is evaluating additional unlicensed use in the 5 GHz band.

The plan has not been universally well received. Traditional telecom, cable TV and satellite firms prefer the exclusive licensee approach, for reasons of quality of service control, and, some would say, for reasons of promoting communications spectrum scarcity.

Some have noted that signal propagation issues in the 3.5-GHz and other similar bands would likely mean that shared spectrum is most helpful in urban areas, where small cells are practical.

But that might suit some mobile service providers just fine. Illiad’s Free Mobile relies on Wi-Fi access where it can, as a way of reducing the cost of sourcing capacity from other mobile operators. Republic Wireless and Scratch Wireless do the same.

Comcast is deploying Wi-Fi hotspots as part of its consumer fixed network broadband service, in an effort to create a huge footprint of potential public Wi-Fi hotspots that likewise could be used to reduce the cost of creating a mobile virtual network operator operation.

Other ISPs with fixed network assets, including Google Fiber, might be able to use such shared spectrum assets in similar ways, to reduce the cost of mobile service that relies on wholesale-sourced facilities.

Some have argued that a separate Google initiative to supply Wi-Fi gear for businesses, and centrally manage all the routers, could play an infrastructure role as well.

The point is that new ways of combining licensed and unlicensed; exclusive and shared; carrier, enterprise and consumer network assets are coming. All of that is going to create new possibilities for varieties of Internet access and mobile service.

That would be the fulfillment of a hope that has been raised for decades, namely that it will be possible for any entity to become a mobile service provider. 

In an earlier iteration, sports brands (EXPN), family brands (Disney), electronics brands (Best Buy) and others have experimented with custom mobile service provider brands. In other markets, supermarkets have considered offering their own service, and Walmart already does so.

With many more federated public Wi-fi networks, much more spectrum and new contenders with fixed network assets, the possibilities will reach a new level, and lower retail price points than possible before.

If most mobile device use occurs in the home, then some believe new mobile providers such as Comcast could operate as MVNOs with 30 percent lower retail costs.


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