FCC proposes rules to reallocate spectrum from TV broadcasters

WASHINGTON--The FCC took several more steps in its quest to free up more spectrum for mobile broadband, including reallocating spectrum from TV broadcasters, one of its most ambitious and contentious proposals. Additionally, the FCC proposed new regulations that could free up spectrum for experimental uses. 

The FCC discussed a variety of issues around spectrum during its meeting.By a 5-0 vote, the commission approved a notice of proposed rulemaking that lays the groundwork for reallocating broadcast TV spectrum for wireless, including 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. And finally, the rules seek to improve digital broadcast reception by increasing the maximum power of VHF stations.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said 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. Commissioner Robert McDowell, one of the two Republicans on the five-member panel, said he is optimistic about the proposal, but also expressed concerns. He said the FCC needs to consider the strengths and weaknesses of channel sharing, spectrum clearing and repacking of spectrum relative to keeping broadcast and wireless broadband services interwoven. 

As part of the commission's national broadband plan, the FCC has committed to freeing up 300 MHz of spectrum over the next five years and 500 MHz of spectrum in 10 years. The FCC's national broadband plan calls for getting up to 120 MHz of spectrum from broadcasters. An FCC report in October said the value of the spectrum it plans to unleash by 2014 is worth up to $120 billion.

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. The FCC also freed up white spaces spectrum--the tiny slivers of spectrum between TV broadcast stations--for unlicensed use.

Separately, the FCC also voted to approve a notice of proposed rulemaking that will give universities, research centers and healthcare institutions greater authority to research and develop experimental uses of spectrum. Currently, each experimental program needs to be described to and approved by the FCC, and the FCC needs to approve modifications to the program. The new rules would create new kinds of experimental licenses that are more flexible. FCC staff noted that spectrum experimentation brought the industry WiFi and CDMA technology, in addition to other wireless services. In tandem, the FCC approved a notice of inquiry to explore more efficient uses of spectrum through dynamic spectrum access technologies.    

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