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Google pleads for more unlicensed spectrum instead of more auctions

LAS VEGAS - Google would really, really like to see the Federal Communications Commission open up a huge swath of unlicensed spectrum for mobile broadband.

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However, it doesn't look like the company will get its wish. During a panel discussion at the Consumer Electronics Show yesterday, Google senior policy counsel Rick Whitt outlined his company's case for making more unlicensed spectrum available instead of simply auctioning off spectrum to the highest bidders. In particular, Whitt cited Google's inability to compete with Verizon when bidding on the so-called "C Block" of spectrum on the 700MHz band that the FCC auctioned off in 2008 that now forms the backbone of Verizon's nationwide LTE network.

"We thought, 'What would it take for us to outbid Verizon?' And every one of the game theorists we talked to across the spectrum said the same thing: 'You'll never outbid Verizon,' " he said. "They are the incumbents and they will do everything they can to foreclose your entry into the market."

Whitt also cited concerns about the proposed spectrum auction legislation that recently passed in the House of Representatives. In particular, Whitt said that an all-licensed approach to spectrum wouldn't give carriers the spectrum they need to build out common infrastructure.

"The concern that many of us have ... is that [the proposed House legislation] seems to say, 'Everything that's cleared must be auctioned and everything that's auctioned must be licensed,' which in our mind would rule out unlicensed," said Whitt. "If nothing else, if you are an advocate of licensed usage there are things like guard bands or things like duplex gaps that are going to be really necessary to have the next generation of LTE networks built... This is beachfront spectrum. How about a couple public beaches?"

But Neil Fried, the chief telecommunications counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that the spectrum in question would be wasted if it was used for short-field communications and said that it needed a national telecom carrier to properly build out and manage a nationwide mobile broadband network.

"There is a need for unlicensed spectrum and that will remain," said Fried. "The type of things we're talking about, the offloading? That's short haul, that's not long haul. If we're talking about beach-front property, are we talking about a place to go surfing or are we talking about a shipping lane? ... What we've done is we've set the right balance. The 700MHz and below, that's the prime stuff for the long-haul licensed wireless broadband use ... creating an oasis for unlicensed use would be essentially preventing the use for licensed."

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski similarly said at CES yesterday that most of the spectrum that will be opened by the FCC in the coming years will be auctioned off. In 2010 the FCC set a goal to make 300MHz of spectrum available for wireless broadband use over the next five years with the eventual goal of freeing up 500MHz of spectrum by the end of 2020. The FCC has said that it could reach 300MHz by reallocating 120MHz of spectrum currently used by television broadcasters, with 90MHz coming from mobile satellite providers, 10MHz coming from the 700MHz "D" block, 60MHz coming from the AWS band and 20MHz coming from the Wireless Communications Service band. The FCC has projected that growth in wireless data demand will lead to a "spectrum deficit" of 275MHz if no new spectrum is released by 2014. There is currently 547MHz of spectrum available for dual use in mobile voice and data services.

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