Editor’s Corner—Sprint isn’t the only one with 2.5 GHz aspirations

Monica Alleven editor's corner

Every now and then, T-Mobile executives are asked what they think about 2.5 GHz spectrum, the type of spectrum of which Sprint has a treasure trove. T-Mobile and Sprint may or may not combine forces one day.

During T-Mobile’s first-quarter earnings call in April, T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray was asked for his current thinking around 2.5 GHz. High Performance User Equipment (HPUE) was the big story at the time—Sprint said it improves the spectrum coverage characteristic of its 2.5 GHz (high-band) spectrum to make it close to its 1.9 GHz (mid-band) spectrum. Ray said he thinks HPUE has some benefits, but it’s going to be a far cry from leveling the playing field with mid-band spectrum. He concluded, “we’ll wait to see more.”

Flash forward to this past week, and Karri Kuoppamaki, vice president of radio network technology and strategy at T-Mobile, came to a similar “wait and see” conclusion when asked by Wells Fargo Securities analyst Jennifer Fritzsche for his take on the 2.5 GHz band and 5G. (Note: 2.5 GHz isn’t going to be great in T-Mobile’s view until negotiations are done and it has it in its possession; then it will suddenly be awesome.)

Kuoppamaki added some additional color, which can be summed up as: The devil is in the details. There are challenges associated with the 2.5 GHz, not the least of which is the kinda goofy way (my words) it was originally allocated.

Yes, there’s a lot of spectrum at 2.5 GHz, something Sprint and Clearwire have talked about for years. But the 2.5 GHz also involves two different blocks of spectrum, the EBS portion and the BRS portion, leased versus owned. The owned spectrum is easy to deal with and control, Kuoppamaki noted.

By way of background, the EBS portion, which stands for Educational Broadband Services, is the successor to the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS). The BRS band, for Broadband Radio Service, is the successor to Multipoint Distribution Service (MDS) and Multichannel Distribution Service (MMDS) systems.

The way the licenses were originally granted for educational facilities used concentric circles with a 35-mile radius. Sometimes they overlap, and sometimes they leave uncovered slivers.

“Geographically speaking or population wise, they seem to cover most of the population, but geographically speaking, the story is not the same,” Kuoppamaki said. “The devil is always in the details.”

Basically, the 80-20 rule seems to apply, meaning you can maybe cover 80% of the population but only 20% of the geography, so when you take that into account, “it really begs the question: is that necessarily the silver bullet that allows you to do 5G on a broad geographical basis? And I think that’s something we will have to wait and see how that situation develops,” he said.

Kuoppamaki’s comments are a good reminder that Sprint isn’t the only one with 2.5 GHz spectrum. WISPs like Rise Broadband would like the chance to acquire more 2.5 GHz spectrum for fixed LTE wireless coverage in rural areas.

SpeedConnect recently began using 2.5 GHz EBS and BRS spectrum to launch LTEXtreme internet service, with 5, 15, 25 and 50 Mbps speeds to meet subscriber needs for streaming video services.

Redzone Wireless, the fifth-largest holder of licensed 2.5 GHz EBS spectrum leases in the U.S., is preparing to expand beyond the borders of Maine and leverage its 5Gx Fixed Wireless Broadband network technology in other areas of the U.S. 

Part of the problem is that there’s unlicensed EBS spectrum out there, but there’s been a filing freeze at the FCC since the mid-'90s for new EBS licenses and no ability to apply for the vacant areas, or white spaces. In 2014, some of the major players, including the Wireless Communications Association, the National EBS Association and the Catholic Television Network, got together and submitted a proposal on how to license the spectrum. 

Now there are efforts underway to get the FCC to, at a minimum, put out a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on how to license that spectrum.

Just before the Memorial Day holiday, representatives from some of the interested parties met with the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, urging the commission to move as quickly as possible to address the licensing of unlicensed EBS spectrum—spectrum that has been unavailable for more than 20 years. The parties also discussed the current and future status of the 2.5 GHz regulatory regime and how the addition of the EBS white space would enhance the provision of educational and commercial broadband services.

Sprint said (PDF) as recently as this past March that it supports the plan to license available EBS white space spectrum more extensively.

You can see where this is going. In this day and age when everybody wants more spectrum, it sounds like an easy win for the FCC to get moving on this.

By making more 2.5 GHz EBS spectrum available, more students in rural areas could presumably get internet services and commercial broadband operators would have more spectrum at their disposal. Easy wins.

Of course, nothing is that easy when it comes to spectrum and the FCC. But maybe now that the incentive auction is over, regulators will have more time to revisit this and get more of this precious resource into the hands of people who can actually use it. — Monica, @FierceWrlssTech