What once looked to be a quiet CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment show this week is now taking place amid a growing buzz about U.S. regulatory issues, with several appearances by U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski shaping up as the centerpiece.
Since Genachowski took office in June, the FCC has launched inquiries into mobile competition and the use of wireless spectrum; probed Apple, Google and AT&T about their interactions regarding the Google Voice application; and moved to both strengthen net neutrality rules and extend them to the wireless arena. Meanwhile, CTIA, the main mobile trade group in the U.S., last week asked the FCC to help make 800 MHz of spectrum available for mobile services in the next six years.
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Genachowski will give an opening-day keynote address at the San Diego conference on Wednesday, and later will take questions from press. On Thursday, he will moderate more than three hours of field hearings in San Diego on emerging mobile applications and possible shortages of wireless spectrum. The two sessions will also include FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker and feature panel discussions with industry representatives, academics and activists.
As mobile phones have become more like handheld, Internet-connected computers, carriers' domination of the mobile world has been gradually giving way to a more open model. There are growing expectations that applications consumers want, such as Google Voice, should be made available on phones in the same way third-party Internet applications are accessible over home broadband. The FCC's proposed net neutrality rules would prohibit carriers from selectively blocking or slowing Web content or applications.
The CTIA and some major carriers have voiced concern about net neutrality rules being applied to mobile, saying they might prevent carriers from differentiating their services. But AT&T and Verizon Wireless have made other moves in the direction of openness, most recently when AT&T on Tuesday reversed its former position and said it would allow VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) applications on the iPhone. Also on Tuesday, Verizon and Google announced that they will work on Android-based devices, applications and services.
Late on Tuesday, the FCC chief applauded AT&T's announcement.
"I commend AT&T's decision to open its network to VoIP," Genachowski said in a statement. "Opening wireless services to greater consumer choice will drive investment and innovation in the mobile marketplace."
Nevertheless, Genachowski's address on Wednesday comes at what is probably just the beginning of a long process of negotiation between government and the industry on these issues. And the CTIA's call for more spectrum raises its own challenges.
Responding to requests for comment by the FCC on wireless innovation and a national broadband plan, the CTIA last week called on the government to review its own use of spectrum and find out what frequencies in both the public and the private sphere are underutilized. The trade group believes mobile operators will need 800 MHz of additional spectrum in the next six years to support fast-growing demand for mobile data capacity. The CTIA would like that spectrum to be in bands between about 700MHz and 2.5GHz that are best suited to mobile services.
Gartner analyst Tole Hart agreed there will be a need for more spectrum. "I think we've got a lot more demand coming up, so the longer they wait, the more critical it'll be," Hart said. He also expects the price of the spectrum to rise as the need grows. However, 800 MHz may be hard to find, he said.
The request is notable for its size. By way of comparison, the FCC's auction earlier this year of mobile data frequencies in the 700MHz band allocated less than 100MHz of spectrum. But the CTIA believes at least 800 MHz will be needed both to keep up with demand and to maintain the U.S. edge in mobile technology, said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at the CTIA. Large amounts of spectrum are in the pipeline in many other developed countries, such as Germany and the U.K., where 350 MHz of frequencies are in the process of being laid out for mobile services, he said.
For the short term, the CTIA has its eye on the 1755-1780MHz and 2155-2180MHz bands, where it says spectrum is readily available now. For the longer term, the group supports two proposals pending in Congress to order a comprehensive inventory of spectrum. To get the spectrum allocated to commercial mobile services within six years may be a tall order. Guttman-McCabe estimated that the process leading up to the January auction of frequencies in the 700MHz band took between eight and 12 years.
"If the process takes that long, we ... are going to be in trouble," Guttman-McCabe said.
However, Guttman-McCabe said the CTIA welcomed Genachowski's "fact-based" approach so far to looking at wireless issues. "I'm willing to go into a debate with our facts against any industry," he said, pegging the wireless industry's annual contribution to the U.S. economy at $140 billion.