cell towers (sutham/Shutterstock.com)

Mexican network impacts critical border communications

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is concerned that a wireless network operated by the Mexican company Altan will interfere with public safety communications near the southern border.

In an Aug. 12 letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Cruz described the effects of Altan's network testing in the 700 MHz spectrum band in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

The news was first reported by Mission Critical Communications.

"The result was a severe degradation of the communications network in El Paso including a nearly complete loss of wireless network coverage for the University Medical Center," Cruz wrote. Additionally, the city's fire and rescue squads lost connectivity -- affecting ambulance equipment that communicates to the hospitals -- and the police department suffered "a loss of network coverage for critical equipment" in patrol cars. 

Cruz said he was concerned the full deployment of the Altan network would have even more serious implications, potentially threatening the operations of FirstNet, the nationwide public safety broadband network. FirstNet is the single, nationwide licensee of the 700 MHz public safety broadband spectrum, according to the FCC.

Altan is responsible for the design, deployment, operation and maintenance of the Red Compartida network that offers wholesale telecommunications services. It launched in March 2018 and is expected to reach 92.2% of the Mexican population by 2024.

In his Aug. 21 reply, Pai said he shared Cruz's concerns about Altan's national wireless network and the use of the 700 MHz spectrum. He said the FCC had been working with the State Department and Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones (IFT), the Mexican telecommunications regulating agency, "to craft a revised protocol to govern use of the 700 MHz band across the border….  Based on that extensive groundwork, we believed that there was a path forward that accommodated both robust U.S. carrier operations and the deployment of Altan’s network in that band."

Nevertheless, Altan turned on its network "in a manner that would directly and foreseeably cause harmful interference to U.S. cellular carriers and their customers who rely on them on a daily basis," Pai wrote. The FCC immediately contacted domestic carriers potentially affected by Altan’s network, sharing what information it had with them and the State Department and contacted IFF Chairman Gabriel Contreras SaldIvar to press the issue.

"While I unfortunately cannot tell you that this situation has been resolved, I want you to know that the FCC will continue to make every effort to ensure that the negative consequences of Altán’s decision do not come to pass," Pai wrote to Cruz.

In response to a request for comment from Mission Critical Communications, an Altan spokesperson said the "matter is one between countries and not between carriers, so it is a topic for the government agencies."

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at smiller@gcn.com or @sjaymiller.

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