Year in Review 2010: FCC hunts for more wireless broadband spectrum

The hunt for more spectrum has always been a top agenda item for the mobile wireless industry, but it received a big boost from Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski in 2010.

When the FCC unveiled its historic national broadband plan, freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum over the next decade was at the top of the priorities. Genachowski and the rest of the commissioners recognize that wireless Internet access will be key to making America more technologically competitive. Genachowski recently declared that the country is at an "inflection point with our invisible infrastructure" and that "if we don't act to update our spectrum policies for the 21st century, we're going to run into a wall--a spectrum crunch" that will stifle innovation.

Specifically, the commission's national broadband plan calls for releasing 300 MHz of spectrum within the next five years and 500 MHz within the next 10 years to meet rising mobile data demands. According to the FCC, mobile data traffic is expected to be 35 times greater than 2009 levels by 2014.

As such, the FCC pushed forward a number of initiatives to free up spectrum. In September, it approved the use of unlicensed white space spectrum, clearing the way for new classes of devices that take advantage of what has been dubbed "super WiFi." In May, the commission voted unanimously to approve an order that changes rules governing the Wireless Communications Services spectrum in the 2.3 GHz band. The FCC said the spectrum can now be made available for mobile broadband use, and that rules will be put in place to avoid interference issues. The next month the FCC opened a proceeding to explore expanded terrestrial mobile use in the MSS bands--up to 90 MHz more.

In November, the FCC approved a notice of proposed rulemaking that lays the groundwork for reallocating 120 MHz of broadcast TV spectrum for wireless, via incentive auctions. The rules will create a licensing framework for spectrum in the UHF and VHF bands and will allow for voluntary channel sharing. The FCC still needs approval from Congress to conduct incentive auctions with broadcasters.

The TV broadcast spectrum rulemaking calls for three main actions. First, the rules provide for all of the spectrum in the TV bands to be open to fixed, mobile and broadcast services, which will give the FCC greater flexibility, including for the incentive auctions. So far, broadcasters have been largely cool to the auctions. The rulemaking also proposes rules that would permit two or more TV broadcasters to share a single 6 MHz channel, although stations would retain rights to mandatory broadcast carriage. 

Another 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. The NTIA subsequently released a report that concluded 115 MHz of spectrum now currently in the hands of the federal government could be used for wireless broadband.

The linchpin in all of this, however, is reallocating broadcast TV spectrum since it is ideally suited for broadband services and most plentiful. The move, however, is likely to meet heavier resistance from broadcasters in 2011.