Increasing wireless spectrum - One year at the FCC

What has happened: One of the centerpiece recommendations of the FCC's national broadband plan is to unleash 500 MHz of wireless spectrum for mobile broadband in the next 10 years, and 300 MHz within the next five years. The commission laid out an action agenda in April for how it plans to reach those goals.

So far, the commission has managed to free up 25 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband use by approving an order that changes rules governing the Wireless Communications Services spectrum in the 2.3 GHz band. The FCC also opened a proceeding to explore expanded terrestrial mobile use in the MSS bands--up to 90 MHz more.

One key part of the spectrum plan is to get the federal government to more efficiently use its spectrum. In June, President Obama directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to identify spectrum in federal hands that can be made available within five years for exclusive or shared use by commercial companies.

But one critical aspect of the spectrum agenda is currently in limbo: getting 120 MHz from TV broadcasters. Under the FCC's plan, broadcasters would voluntarily exchange their spectrum for a share in the resulting revenues from the auction of that spectrum, an action Congress has to authorize.

What's next: Mitchell Lazarus, a telecom lawyer and partner at Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, a law firm based in Arlington, Va., said getting the spectrum from TV broadcasters was the right thing to do from a policy perspective, but will be difficult to get done politically, since local broadcasters still hold a lot of sway with Congress. Further, to make the plan work, the spectrum will have to be contiguous geographically. "The FCC has to be a lot more proactive than it has so far said it is willing to be," Lazarus said.

In July, Gordon Smith, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, indicated there might be a way forward. He said stations that choose not to participate in the voluntary auctions should be given several assurances: He said broadcasters must not be denied the ability to deliver mobile DTV; that broadcasters should not have signal strength limitations; that stations should have the ability to use spectrum for 3DTV; and that new spectrum taxes should not be imposed.

The CTIA continues to press to get the broadcast spectrum into carriers' hands. "Once a sufficient number (of broadcasters) have agreed to an incentive auction, then after that you repack the remaining licensees in a way that clears up contiguous spectrum," said Chris Guttman-McCabe, CTIA's vice president of regulatory affairs.

Others see financial loopholes. "A lot of the benefit from this--which is auction revenue--is going to be lost if you have to pay off everybody in the band," said Harold Feld, the legal director of Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy think tank.

Ruth Milkman, chief of the FCC's Wireless telecommunications Bureau, noted that "incentive auctions would accelerate the process of making additional spectrum available by aligning incentives among stakeholders," and that legislation is advancing to make them happen. 

Increasing wireless spectrum - One year at the FCC