The “Sprint Spectrum”

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The Origin

The story of the 2.5-2.6 GHz spectrum is one that contains a convoluted history, and a simple Google search inquiring into the past of this spectrum will only get you as far back as 2005. Indeed not even our good friend Wikipedia has much to say upon the topic and the FCC wraps up the history in a mere paragraph. However, we were curious as to where this spectrum originated and we were determined to dig up what we could. So off we went, tunneling through pages of research to give a bare-bones history and current day knowledge on the coveted, and little known, 2.5-2.6GHz band.

Our journey begins back in the year 1963, where the frequency was being used by educational institutions to transmit instructional televisions programs to Cold War America. These transmissions used analog technology to provide these broadcasts, and as such they were granted the name Instructional Television, Fixed Service (better known as ITFS). ITFS was a band of twenty microwave Television channels, and licensees were typically granted a group of four channels. As such, these transmissions were considered to be very cost effective as they had comparable quality to broadcast television, were multi-channel enabled, and had a range of 30-40 miles. Not bad, considering.

This continued on until the year 1972, where commercial operators were granted permission by the FCC to use the coexisting commercial band 2150-2162MHz for over-the-air pay-TV transmissions to rooftop antennas and for business data transmissions. Again the coverage for this was 30-40 miles. This service would come to be called Multipoint Distribution Service (MDS) as it could be picked up by anyone within the broadcast range, and soon it would be recognized as an alternate or supplement to conventional cable television. However, MDS could only offer one or two Television channels versus the dozens channels offered by CATV and as a result, MDS revenues declined.

Thus is the origin of both the EBS and BRS channels that we know of today. In time, ITFS would be transformed to the Education Broadcast Service, and MDS would become the Broadcast Radio Service; but let’s finish getting through the history.


The Road to Change

To combat the falling MDS revenues, commercial wireless operators eyed the lightly used ITFS channels to increase the number of channels they would be able to broadcast. After receiving substantial pressure and filing to allow for commercial use of some the ITFS channels, the FCC reallocated eight of the ITFS channels for use by commercial operations in 1983. This reallocation allowed for simultaneous broadcasts of more channels than the existing MDS channels and the newly allocated channels transformed the MDS into the Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service (MMDS).


This reallocation did not displace the existing ITFS licensees at that time; rather rules were established that required the MMDS licensee to pay all costs and relocate the ITFS licensee to an alternate channel, if one was available, before being permitted to broadcast on these channels. We still see reallocation rules like this today, like those implemented by the FCC’s incentive auction.

This continued until 1991 when the FCC would grant wireless cable operators the use of ITFS channels for commercial operations under certain conditions, and in 1995 the FCC ruled that all remaining MDS licenses would be auctioned to support the struggling U.S. economy. This auction would transform the wireless market as it would divide the country into geographic areas known as Basic Trading Areas (or BTAs) that are still used today.




Prior to the existence of the BTAs, the ITFS and MMDS licences were initially assigned as a 35 mile GSA (Geographic Service Area). The range of these GSAs were often reduced, however, as to prevent overlaps with other licensees. This model worked well for fixed services, but it was unable to accommodate fixed and mobile broadband services. By assigning BRS licenses to BTAs, the FCC was able to greatly increase the utility and value of the spectrum as a whole. However it is still possible to see legacy licenses that are assigned to a GSA today. All EBS licenses, and legacy BRS licenses, have a GSA defined by a radius of 35 miles around a point.

All non-legacy BRS spectrum is licensed by BTA. A BTA is a collection of counties and the size is decided upon by density of the population that resides within that BTA. The idea behind splitting the country into these BTAs was to grant a license holder the right to use any of the 13 commercial channels anywhere within its BTA if it could do so without interfering in any pre-existing licensee or any adjacent BTA. Here is a map of the existing BTAs in the United States.

An example of an existing legacy BRS license coexisting with a BTA license can be seen in Madison, Wisconsin. Here, Sprint holds the BTA license for the Madison area. The BTA BRS license includes all the BRS frequencies (BRS1, BRS2, E1-E4, F1-F4, H1-H3). The coverage for this license can be seen below:

Meanwhile, there is a legacy BRS license in the Madison area which is owned by TDS. They hold the frequencies F1-F3, H1, and H3. Here is their coverage:



As you can see, even though Sprint holds the BTA license, if they are in the coverage radius of TDS’s legacy GSA BRS license, then they will only be able to use the frequencies BRS1, BRS2, E1-E4, F4, and H2. If you’d like to learn more about the GSA and BTA areas, Sprint released a report which goes quite in depth and can be found here.


The Arrival of EBS & BRS


The MDS auction would occur from November 1995 to March 1996 and would yield $216.3 million that would be deposited directly into the U.S. Treasury. In return the FCC distributed 493 licenses, one per the newly created BTAs, to a total of 67 licensees.

The FCC would receive pressure throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s to allow for two-way transmission on the MDS and ITFS bands, and in 2005 the FCC would change the rules and policies governing the licensing of the channels in the 2.5-2.6 GHz band. The ITFS would be transformed into the current EBS spectrum and MMDS would transition to become the BRS spectrum. Based on these policy and rule changes the ITFS value rose sharply overnight. Owners of the original ITFS spectrum became licensees of the EBS spectrum and paid nothing when the rule change occurred. Unfortunately many of the licensees knew little about the value of the spectrum which they now sat on and were often willing to part with it with prices much cheaper than valued.



The Importance of Clearwire

Hence entered Clearwire, who noticed the value increase in the spectrum and began leasing from any institution willing to part with their EBS license. You can read more about Clearwire’s spectrum grab here to gain a greater understanding as to why they spent all their money to acquire these licenses.


Where the Spectrum Stands Today

In 2013 Sprint purchased Clearwire, and with this spectrum in hand Sprint announced plans to deploy a nationwide TD-LTE network – a far more ambitious project than the hotspot network the companies had initially envisioned. Since then we’ve seen Sprint hemorrhaging money attempting to stay afloat and reports state that in the past six months the company has reduced its number of employees and cut anywhere from $2 billion to $2.5 billion in costs. Most recently Sprint made the decision to skip a major spectrum auction in November, choosing instead to focus on improving coverage with its existing spectrum by upgrading its infrastructure and deployment technology. With Sprint holding a majority of the 2.5GHz BRS spectrum, and it doesn’t look like they have plans to split with it anytime soon, the question arises of where independent operators are able to obtain the 2.5 & 2.6GHz spectrum for use in their own networks.



How the Spectrum Works

The 2.5 & 2.6GHz bands are unique in that they have been divided into two radio services, EBS (Educational Broadband Service) and BRS (Broadband Radio Service), consisting of thirty-three 5.5-6.0 MHz channels. Twenty of these channels have been reserved for EBS use and thirteen for BRS use. Traditionally BRS was used for the transmission of data and video programming, but in 2005 the FCC approved a rule change that allowed the service to be used for two-way, mobile and fixed data services including internet access. However, considering that the BRS band has been almost completely auctioned off, it’s unlikely that an independent operator is going to have access to this band of the spectrum. Instead it’s necessary for operators to turn to the EBS band – traditionally used in the transmission of instructional material to accredited education institutions and non-education institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes, training centers, and rehabilitation centers. Currently the band is allocated to universities all over the nation with the goal of providing students with high-speed internet access and/or digital video programming. Yet many of these universities don’t use the band to its potential, making it is possible to lease the spectrum from licensees for a term of up to 30 years, so long as the EBS holder reserves 5% of the capacity of the channels for educational usage.



How to Pick Up a 2.5-2.6GHz License

These EBS licenses can be acquired either by entering a lease agreement with the licensee themselves, along with filing necessary FCC paperwork, or it can be obtained through spectrum auctions which are often hosted by third parties that facilitate the necessary procedures. An upcoming Spectrum Lease Auction, with first bids due April 14th, will be offering EBS/BRS 2.5 & 2.6 GHz licenses, but we haven’t been able to track down where the BRS licenses are coming from. According to Rick Harnish, who works as an independent consultant and agent for Select Spectrum, the BRS licenses will be sold in South and North Dakota and Northern Minnesota along with several other locations. The price for leasing an EBS license in rural areas typically runs at $.05 per MHz POP which means that it’s possible to lease 4 channels (22.5 MHz) of spectrum for about $500 a month to cover an area with a population up to 100,000 people. So getting a hold of the spectrum seems to be a little bit on the pricey end, yet clever operators could see a return on their investment so long as they’re able to expand their reach to connect new costumers to their networks. Yet unless Sprint auctions off all the spectrum it has worked so hard to acquire, or you’re able to acquire a license from a defunct ISP, getting a BSR license seems virtually impossible. Ultimately, it’ll come down to a case-by-case basis to see if it’s worth to your network, but we’re not dropping any earth-shattering knowledge with that tidbit. If you have the ability to obtain a BRS or EBS license in your service area, you will have rights to a high powered interference-free frequency with decent propagation properties – something that will benefit any TD-LTE network.

Hopefully this will have given you a better idea on the history of the frequency, how the 2.5 & 2.6 GHz spectrum works, and how to acquire it. If this article was beneficial or you’d like to learn more about the spectrum, let us know in the comments below. Feel free to follow us on Facebook and Twitter were we’re covering the latest in broadband and LTE news.

2 Responses

  1. Craig McCaw
    | Reply

    Bring Back WIMAX

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