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Small Wireless Carriers Call for Spectrum Cap

An advocacy group representing smaller, rural wireless carriers is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reinstate limits on the amount of spectrum a carrier can own -- a move that it believes could stop the nation's largest wireless companies from grabbing an unfair share.

The Rural Telecommunications Group (RTG) said its members' networks could be in jeopardy if what it sees as a "duopoloy" in spectrum ownership comes into play, following recent spectrum acquisitions by wireless market leaders AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless, a venture of Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ) and Vodafone Group (NYSE: VOD).

"As more consolidations are taking place, more spectrum is ending up with the big players," Carri Bennet, RTG's general counsel, told InternetNews.com. "The rural carriers need access to spectrum."

The group wants a cap of 110 MHz on the amount of spectrum a carrier can hold below the 2.3 GHz band within a county.

The request asks the FCC to revisit capping spectrum ownership, a policy it abandoned in 2003. The agency initially weighed proposed mergers among carriers based whether their combined spectrum would exceed 70 MHz, later bumping that figure to 95 MHz.

Yet any plans for a new cap would likely draw protests by leading carriers, since available spectrum is a valuable, limited commodity, with carriers facing with increasing consumer and business demands for wireless data services.

AT&T already has fired back at efforts to reinstate spectrum limits, calling the FCC's 2003 dropping of spectrum caps a "pro-competitive action" that led to a "vibrantly competitive market".

"Consumers are demanding more reliable coverage and more broadband services from their wireless devices, and RTG's petition would simply thwart what consumers want, including constraining the deployment of broadband services," an AT&T spokesperson told InternetNews.com.

RTG is also concerned about new spectrum Verizon Wireless could gain with its proposed Alltel acquisition, according to Bennet. A Verizon spokesperson told InternetNews.com that it currently has 95 MHz in several markets.

"We need time to dig in and look at all the markets and who has what amount of spectrum to see how its ended up," Bennet said.

AT&T's spokesperson said it was planning to file its comment later on Friday. Calls to Sprint and T-Mobile for comment were not returned by press time.

An FCC spokesperson said it does not comment on filings, and that the agency isn't mandated to review the cap request petition or open it to public comment.

The RTG petition follows on the heels of the history-making 700 MHz auction earlier this year. Verizon Wireless emerged the big winner and spent $9.63 billion. AT&T spent $6.64 billion for a smaller share of the available spectrum.

While pushing for the cap, RTG is also aiming to help its members gain greater access to available spectrum by hosting a first-of-its kind "Spectrum Marketplace" event in early September.

The goal is to help carriers meet with interested spectrum owners looking to sell or lease spectrum, and also to get better insight on spectrum auctions and actions, according to the group.