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Will the FCC's National Broadband Plan resolve Sirius XM's little war with big wireless?

Mercedes BenzAs Federal Communications Commission watchers everywhere know, a huge part of the agency’s strategy to build out the nation’s broadband infrastructure will be to get more spectrum licenses to the wireless industry. In fact, FCC Chair Julius Genachowski says the Commission’s National Broadband Plan will propose freeing up 500 MHz over the next decade. And then there’s this comment from Genachowski, which has me scratching my head a bit:

“The Plan proposes resolving longstanding debates about how to maximize the value of spectrum in bands such as the Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) or Wireless Communications Service (WCS) by giving  licensees the option of new flexibility to put the spectrum toward mobile broadband use—or the option of voluntarily transferring the license to someone else who will.”

We’ve been watching the WCS fight for a while here at Radio Survivor, and (more significantly) so have Volvo, Ford, Chrysler, Comcast, AT&T, NextWave, and quite a few members of the House of Representatives, all of whom have communicated with the FCC on this matter (Mercedes-Benz just filed a week ago).

Here again is the “longstanding debate,” in a nutshell. As the table below indicates, Sirius XM transmits its content over spectrum very close in proximity to the Wireless Communications Services band.

WCS and Sirius XM bands
WCS Sirius XM WCS
Band (MHz) 2305-2320 2320-2345 2345-2360

The owners of that WCS spectrum, which include AT&T, Comcast, and NextWave, want to step up use of the band for wireless communications services, but the sticky question is how to avoid interference with Sirius XM repeater towers (and vice versa). Last year, WCS reps proposed compromise limits on transmission power for WCS base stations and Sirius XM repeaters of 2,000 watts average EIRP and 400 watts average EIRP per 1MHz. But Sirius XM still insisted that:

“tests and demonstrations that Sirius XM and WCS licensees jointly performed this summer in Ashburn, Virginia, to demonstrate the interference potential of WCS mobile devices to satellite radio service. Sirius XM stated that the results of the tests confirmed that some implementations of mobile broadband devices in the WCS spectrum would have little potential to cause interference to satellite reception while other implementations would cause significant harm to Sirius XM’s 18 million customers. Sirius XM stated that the primary focus of the pending proceedings should be to define WCS operating parameters to ensure that WCS broadband services and devices are compatible with adjacent band satellite radio operations.”

And just last month Sirius told the FCC that Clearwire’s WiMAX mobile service in Philadelphia would provide a more realistic assessment of interference potential than the Ashburn tests.

Meanwhile more auto companies are siding with Sirius on this question. Here’s Mercedes-Benz’s concern:

“We urge the FCC to be cautious and ensure that satellite radio is not degraded by changing the established rules for WCS operations. Sirius XM Radio has spent billions of dollars developing networks that are based on the understanding that mobile WCS devices would not interfere. MBUSA had this same understanding since we have already deployed over 800,000 vehicles with this technology. Unlike cell phones, automobiles are not discarded every year or two – these satellite radios will remain operational and in circulation for years to come.”

Ditto say Hyundai and Land Rover North America.

So it will be interesting to see how the National Broadband Plan proposes to resolve this question. Is the FCC going to propose that Sirius XM allow some of its spectrum licenses to be leased or auctioned to WCS? Just a speculation, of course, but that’s what Genachowski’s comment seems to suggest. March 16th is the day that the FCC unveils the plan, so perhaps we’ll know then.

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