Wireless Executives Debate Role of Next-Generation Services

Wireless February 11th, 2009

, Reporter, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, February 11, 2009 – Wireless industry veterans butted heads during a panel discussion at Tuesday morning’s Broadband Breakfast Club. Organized by BroadbandCensus.com, the event focused on the role of wireless services in next-generation broadband deployment.

The four-month delay in transitioning the United States to digital television will not affect Verizon’s plans to deploy its fourth-generation service dubbed Long-Term Evolution (LTE), said assistant vice president for wireless and spectrum policy Donald Brittingham.

Despite paying $9 billion for much of the 700 Megahertz spectrum that until last week had been set to vacated by television stations on February 17, Brittingham maintained that Verizon had never planned to begin deploying LTE immediately after the transition date. Instead, the carrier will conduct a period of testing before implementing an “aggressive plan” to deploy their 4G service before year’s end, he said.

Brittingham predicted that LTE will become the world-wide standard for 4G wireless broadband instead of the WiMax technology adopted by rival Sprint-Clearwire. The 700 MHz spectrum for LTE’s  will allow for “substantially better” service and let Verizon serve areas where it previously had not been economical, he said.

The transition will unleash productivity benefits for both consumers and businesses, as well as public safety and homeland security stakeholders, said Steve Sharkey, senior director of regulatory and spectrum policy for Motorola. While Sharkey said a smooth transition should “not be taken lightly,” he warned that the delay puts economic activity associated with next-generation services on hold.

The public safety sector has been moving into the 700 MHz band for years, said John Kneuer, formerly Assistant Secretary of Commerce and head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and currently a consultant working for a number of clients promoting public safety communications, including Rivada. Kneuer was confident that the DTV switch will allow even more communities to deploy next generation systems for their first responders.

Wireless services outside of the 700 MHz band should also be green-lighted to allow more broadband competition nationwide, said M2Z Networks CEO John Muleta. If the goal of increased penetration isn’t taken more seriously, than any policy on wireless broadband has failed, he said. Muleta said that a one percent increase in broadband penetration could create 800,000 jobs.

The variety of services available in the 700 MHz band means that consumers don’t have to choose one particular technology, said Motorola’s Sharkey. The choice between licensed spectrum and unlicensed “white space” devices is not an “either/or” choice, he said.

Sharkey broke from the practice of referring to wireless as a “third pipe” along with cable and fiber services. “We’re now at a place where we have five to six pipes,” he said. Policymakers should allow as many technologies as possible to be used to fill underserved gaps in the population, he said. But between LTE, WiMax, and other technologies, he suggested most communities have very competitive marketplaces for wireless services.

Convincing consumers to adopt wireless services will be a “nagging problem,” said M2Z’s Muleta.  Speed is only one factor in consumer choice, he said. Muleta lamented the lack of ecosystems for developing open, carrier-agnostic applications and said that wireless executives visit Silicon Valley and see how frustrated developers are at the lack of open standards for development. What consumers really want is “really cool applications,” he said.

Sharkey said that the success of Apple’s iPhone app store rebutted Muleta’s arguments. But Muleta dismissed Apple’s platform as a closed environment when compared with Google’s Android operating system and Verizon’s open device initiative. Government policies like the open access requirements of the 700 MHz auction support market innovations that drive new applications, Muleta said.

Sharkey said that the limiting factor in consumer adoption of wireless broadband has been hardware, not software. He predicted that as the performance gap between mobile devices and desktop machines narrows, open access will become the norm, much like the way software is loaded on a desktop PC today. Eventually, most people around the world will be on wireless broadband, he said.

A wireless world will have a place for smaller companies as well as the major carriers, said Tom DeRiggi of Rapid DSL and Wireless, a wireless service provider. Fixed wireless services like his company’s are “very nimble” and can provide faster speeds than mobile technologies, he said. While fixed wireless won’t compete head-to-head with fiber, DeRiggi predicted the high cost of fiber would allow space in the market for other services.

Fixed wireless has benefits no other service can provide, DeRiggi said. His company deployed service to the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial for last month’s inaugural festivities on little notice, with great success, he said. “Who can provide 100 megabits in two days?” he asked.

But consumers ultimately may not care whether their wireless is fixed or mobile as long as their access comes with “the least amount of friction,” said Muleta. Instead of focusing on getting subsidies to build out to rural areas, the industry and regulators should change the debate to one about what consumers want, not what the industry wants, he said.

Brittingham took a shot at M2Z’s proposal to offer a free tier of service over the Advanced Wireless Service 3 band in exchange for the spectrum license. It was  an idea supported by former FCC chairman Kevin Martin, but held up by concerns over plans to require the service to filter out adult content. “Buy it,” he told Muleta. “Don’t ask the FCC to give it away for free.”

But Muleta fired back, pointing out that 80 percent of the spectrum offered in the 2007 auctions was bought by 2 carriers, Verizon and AT&T. Spectrum isn’t sold in a free market, he said — the FCC is the only place to get it.

The Broadband Breakfast Club is sponsored by CTIA – The Wireless Association and the Benton Foundation.

Editor’s Note

The Broadband Breakfast Club is a monthly discussion form meeting on the second Tuesday of the month at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington.

Archived webcasts of the Broadband Breakfast Club are now available on the BroadbandCensus.com channel on TV Mainstream. One full year of online access to each premium webcast is available for $40.00, at http://www.tvmainstream.com/series/bbclub/

TV Mainstream

Telecommunications policy advocates, attorneys, policy-makers and journalists seeking to obtain insights from top officials in Washington can attend the Broadband Breakfast Club, which includes a full American and Continental breakfast, for as little as $45.00, plus a modest registration fee. Registration is available at http://broadbandbreakfast.eventbrite.com

The events are on the record and open to the public. Individuals who register to attend the Broadband Breakfast Club will also receive a full year of complementary online access to the webcast.

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