White House Commits to Spectrum for Mobile Broadband

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday threw its full weight behind a policy initiative aimed at spurring mobile broadband networks by reallocating wireless spectrum from government agencies and businesses.

Obama issued a memorandum this morning directing the Secretary of Commerce and the agency within the department that oversees federal spectrum to coordinate with the Federal Communications Commission to develop a plan to free up 500 MHz of spectrum over the next 10 years.

The president’s top economic advisor described the plan in a speech here at the New America Foundation, a think tank that has been a vocal advocate for spectrum reform.

“We are now in the midst of the third wave of the Internet’s development — mobile broadband — and we’ve only begun to glimpse the benefits of that revolution, exemplified by smartphones, netbooks and the applications that run on them,” said Lawrence Summers, the assistant to the president for economic policy and director of the National Economic Council. “Perhaps the major threat to this vision is what could be called spectrum crunch.”

The administration’s move adds the presidential imprimatur to a controversial policy proposal already on the table at the FCC, which set the goal of reallocating 500 MHz of spectrum for mobile data networks by 2020 in the national broadband plan in an plan submitted to Congress in March.

That plan has already run into staunch opposition from television broadcasters who see the FCC’s proposal to reclaim 120 MHz of spectrum from local TV stations as a threat to their industry.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the industry’s principal trade group and lobbying organization, has been advancing the argument that casting over-the-air television and broadband at odds with one another is a false choice.

“Expanding broadband is important, and broadcasters will work constructively with policymakers to help them attain that objective,” NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton said today in a statement. “We appreciate FCC assurances that further reclamation of broadcast television spectrum will be completely voluntary, and we’re convinced that America can have both the finest broadband and broadcasting system in the world without jeopardizing the future of free and local TV service to tens of millions of viewers.”

The FCC’s proposal, which today won the endorsement of the White House, asks for broadcasters to voluntarily relinquish their spectrum licenses in exchange for a portion of the proceeds generated at the auctions where they would be resold to wireless network operators.

Summers said that the administration would work with Congress to craft legislation to give the FCC the authority to conduct the so-called “incentive auctions,” and reiterated the commission’s pledge that it is not out to strong-arm broadcasters into abandoning their spectrum.

“To be sure and to be clear, our plan will allow all stations that currently broadcast the right to continue to broadcast,” he said. “It is based on the principle of voluntarism.”

The administration’s proposal calls for the proceeds from the auctions remaining after broadcasters are paid back to be used to fund a nationwide, interoperable public safety communications network for first responders.

Obama instructed the FCC and Commerce to develop a plan and timetable for reallocating the spectrum by Oct. 1. The president also directed the heads of all agencies that use federal spectrum to work with the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration to advise the process of converting portions of the airwaves to mobile broadband networks.

Summers said that the administration supports a mix of licensed spectrum allocations and unlicensed, experimental uses, which in the past have delivered technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Dispatching Summers to a progressive think to talk up spectrum reform served both to elevate the issue on the administration’s policy agenda and to establish a link between the arcane and deeply technical subject of wireless frequencies and the nation’s competitive standing in the global economy, a point on which he dwelled at some length.

“Many other countries have less encumbered spectrum than the United States, and continue to move aggressively in the wireless arena,” he said. “To be sure the United States has the edge in the ecosystem of networks, technologies products and applications, but we can only keep that edge if we continue to develop our digital infrastructure. These issues are fundamentally important for our competitiveness.”

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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