After spending billions to own chunks of spectrum, you would think U.S. cellular telephone operators would have every reason to resist the proliferation of unlicensed wireless-data networks. In fact, the opposite is proving true. Cell operators are exploring ways to exploit unlicensed wireless bandwidth, despite the billions waiting to be invested in frequencies for 3G (third-generation) cell data services.
Cell operators are buying into hot-spot networks, rolling out experiments, and trying to hurry the day when they can offload their heaviest data exchanges to the free airwaves. AT&T Wireless has a trial hot-spot network, Sprint PCS has invested in hot-spot aggregator Boingo Wireless, Verizon Wireless will soon resell access to Wayport's hotel and airport network, and T-Mobile is approaching 2,500 Wi-Fi locations nationwide.
"We support the allocation of additional spectrum for unlicensed use and view applications such as Wi-Fi as complementary to our own offerings not competitive," said AT&T Wireless' vice president for federal affairs, Doug Brandon, through a spokesperson.
Cingular appears to be the only carrier without publicly announced Wi-Fi plans. In fact, Cingular is the only cell operator to have filed negative comments in response to a recent Federal Communications Commission request for comments on opening up more unlicensed spectrum as an underlay -- a low-power, noninterfering adjunct -- on licensed bands.
In comments filed with the FCC, Cingular Wireless argued, "Allowing unlicensed operations as an underlay to licensed operations in these bands is … contrary to law and creates additional policy and technical problems." But Cingular's comments, defending against future attempts to provide underlays on other licensed bands, are actually an anomaly in this round of government lobbying.
Dave Farber, former FCC technologist and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the unlicensed spectrum debate has not seen the screaming agony that normally accompanies lobbying games, such as those concerning UWB (ultrawideband) and low-powered FM radio have in the past.
AT&T Wireless' parent company, AT&T, is a case in point. "AT&T believes that authorizing use of additional spectrum for unlicensed transmitters should lead to increased innovation, more choices, and greater benefits to consumers," the company stated in its FFC filing.
Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., is the cochair of the Congressional Internet Wireless Task Force and a sponsor of a bill that would add 255 MHz of unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band. According to the congressman, concerns do exist when it comes to allocating spectrum for unlicensed wireless broadband use, but some of those concerns are over issues of interference.
"The industry has also cited its concern over the allocation of such a large block when cellular companies have had to work so hard and pay so much for the spectrum they do have," Honda said.
Ultimately it's the financial bottom line that will decide cell operators' stances. "The cost of providing access over free spectrum is so much lower that it's hard to ignore -- it's impossible to ignore," said Sky Dayton, CEO of Boingo Wireless. T-Mobile recently licensed Boingo's software platform and will use a custom client that allows 2.5G and Wi-Fi roaming across T-Mobile's cell and hot spot networks.
"The more inspired carriers are looking at Wi-Fi as a great opportunity, because if you think about it, why should you cannibalize scarce 3G spectrum?" Dayton said.