Tiny Wireless Networks Take Hit as FCC Vote Favors AT&T, Verizon

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Federal Communications Commission, acting at the urging of carriers such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., voted Tuesday to cancel an Obama-era policy of offering licenses to areas as small as a factory so they can set up their own wireless networks.

In a 3-1 vote, the agency reversed an earlier vote to offer frequencies in smaller, neighborhood-sized tracts -- an increment preferred by industrial companies that want wireless networks for their facilities. Instead, it will restrict licenses to bigger areas that will likely be too costly for a company looking to connect only a building or campus.

None of the frequencies have been assigned.

Members of the FCC’s Republican majority said the bigger license areas would help make the airwaves available for next-generation, ultra-fast 5G networks that are a focus of commercial development and U.S. technology policy under President Donald Trump.

“The past administration’s rules were not supportive of large scale deployments,” said Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. “The rules were designed so that a select group could get licenses on the cheap.”

Criticism that the rules passed Tuesday were aimed at helping the largest wireless carriers is “pure gibberish,” O’Rielly said.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s sole Democrat and lone dissenter Tuesday, described the vote as “a lost opportunity.”

“Today this agency reverses course on the experimental vision we had,” Rosenworcel said. “Instead of offering a bold new vision, we adopt more of the stale policies of the spectrum past.”

The airwaves in question, in a part of the spectrum known as the 3.5 gigahertz band, had been reserved for military radars. Officials during President Barack Obama’s presidency drew up a plan to let commercial interests share the airwaves, as long as sensors could manage the transmissions to avoid interfering with the military.

The sharing aspects remain intact; the current FCC is altering the license size. The change follows a request last year from the largest U.S. mobile providers, including a petition by the CTIA trade group with members including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., and a separate request by T-Mobile US Inc.

The FCC also on a 4-0 vote proposed to open a separate set of airwaves for use by Wi-Fi. The frequencies in the 6 gigahertz band could collect data from phones, laptops, and other mobile devices, freeing up capacity of commercial wireless systems, the FCC said in its proposal. Users may include cable companies and operators of stadiums, convention centers and shopping malls, the agency said.

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