* Order will improve service of rural, regional wirelessproviders
* Airwaves in 700 MHz band highly valued for powerful signal
* Dish helped broker deal as part of mobile broadbandstrategy
* Companies position themselves ahead of FCC's spectrumauctions
By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON, Oct 28 (Reuters) - U.S. telecommunicationsregulators on Monday formally adopted an agreement by AT&T Inc, Dish Network Corp and other wireless companiesto give smaller operators access to devices now made only forAT&T's airwaves.
The Federal Communications Commission's order, approvedwithout a public vote, makes official and elaborates upon amulti-pronged deal brokered by agency staff and wirelesscompanies last month.
Participants made concessions in hopes of improving how theyuse the airwaves that carry their wireless signals. Theagreement could also ultimately affect how much money the FCCraises in January in its auction of spectrum, the agency's firstmajor spectrum auction since 2008.
Such an agreement has been a key policy goal of FCC ActingChairwoman Mignon Clyburn to help smaller wireless providers,such as regional or rural carriers, gain access to more andbetter devices to operate on their airwaves in the lower 700megahertz band.
AT&T owns a band of frequencies in the adjacent block and byagreeing to "interoperability" of devices between its airwavesand the ones in the nearby frequencies, it gives manufacturersthe incentive to make phones that would be usable for customersof smaller providers as well as the second-biggest provider,AT&T.
The airwaves in the 700 megahertz band are highly valued fortheir powerful signal.
"For folks in rural areas in particular, this is going toallow local providers to offer service not just on their systemsbut also on AT&T systems," said Harold Feld, senior vicepresident of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge.
In some areas, he said, interoperability may lead to moreroaming options or even give local providers a chance to growinto regional ones.
In announcing the ruling, Clyburn praised the collaborativeefforts by AT&T, consumer advocacy groups, the CompetitiveCarriers Association and Dish, which helped smaller wirelesscarriers negotiate the interoperability deal with AT&T.
As part of the agreement, Dish promised to lower the powerin the so-called E block of frequencies that it owns, to reducethe possibility of interference with signals sent on nearbyfrequencies, which are owned by other companies including AT&T.
In return for its promise to lower power, Dish gets moretime and flexibility in building out the networks in that blockof airwaves.
For Dish, the order is the first step in its strategy togrow as a wireless competitor and expand in mobile broadband.
Dish has separately also asked the FCC to delay the deadlinefor building networks on other airwaves it bought in 2012 andfor more flexibility in how it could use them.
The FCC sets deadlines and requirements for how - and howquickly - the companies have to make use of the radiofrequencies they own.
The agency is currently reviewing Dish's further requests,although it is unclear whether the new FCC chairman, TomWheeler, whose nomination awaits Senate confirmation, would ruleto satisfy all of Dish's wants.
To sweeten the deal, Dish told the FCC that if the agencygives its nod to all of the company's requests, it would invest$1.56 billion in the upcoming auction of so-called H blockfrequencies, scheduled for January.
The investment would set the bar for other bids in theauction, whose proceedings will help fund a new network foremergency communications.
Congress has mandated that the FCC raise enough money tobuild the public safety network, which makes Dish's bidimportant as it could help avoid low offers or only one offerexpected to come from Sprint Corp.
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