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DBS battles Northpoint

DirecTV and EchoStar, fierce rivals that are in the process of suing each other, are so worried about one small company called Northpoint Technology that they are taking the unusual step of working together to battle it.

"For us to put our differences aside to take this to [FCC Chairman William] Kennard.speaks volumes about how much we collectively are concerned about this issue," says DirecTV spokesman Bob Marsocci.

Northpoint is pushing the FCC hard for licenses that would permit it to offer terrestrial wireless services on the 12.2-12.7 GHz band that DBS uses.

When Northpoint first came on the scene about two years ago, it was pitching a service that would have provided local TV signals by delivering them terrestrially to customers over the DBS spectrum band. But it has expanded that offering to also include some 90 cable networks and two-way broadband Internet services, says Northpoint President Sophia Collier.

DBS providers object to Northpoint's spectrum-sharing plan because they say Northpoint's use of the spectrum will cause interference to their customers. Northpoint says DBS companies are just afraid of competition.

"We compete every day in the market," wrote DirecTV and EchoStar CEOs Eddy Hartenstein and Charlie Ergen in the letter to Kennard, the other four FCC commissioners and several key members of Congress. "We will happily compete with Northpoint if that company locates its operations in another, more appropriate, spectrum band.such as those bands specifically allocated for similar wireless systems.

"Both the engineering analyses and public policy dictate that the Commission should deny Northpoint's petition." Northpoint's real motivation for trying to become a secondary user of the DBS spectrum, the companies say, is gaining free access to the spectrum. If Northpoint were to try to operate its service in one of the spectrum bands allocated to wireless cable service-which is what Northpoint essentially is, according to DBS executives-it would have to purchase that spectrum in an FCC auction.

But Northpoint says it couldn't operate the broadband wireless cable service it is proposing in a smaller-spectrum band. "What killed wireless cable is that it could only operate at 190 MHz," Collier says. "It's very important for us to have at least 500 provide a service that is competitive with cable."

Collier also says that the premise of Hartenstein and Ergen's letter is flawed because no study has proven that Northpoint's service would cause interference. "We have provided engineering analyses that have not been controverted," Collier claims. DBS providers disagree, and are funding their own study.

DBS providers also don't understand why the FCC would even consider a service that might interfere with an incumbent provider. But in Northpoint's case, DBS providers say the FCC has moved to approve its license request with uncharacteristic speed. The FCC had no official comment on the proceeding, but the commission traditionally has been interested in technological alternatives to cable. Northpoint also wins political points for promising to bring local TV stations and high-speed data to rural and unserved areas, although the DBS companies say it's going to be harder than Northpoint claims to roll those services out nationwide.

The DBS companies attribute the FCC's motivation to Northpoint's connections to Democrats in high places.

Collier denies that Northpoint has gotten any special treatment from the FCC.