FCC Chair Pitches Spectrum Reform

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission today offered the first glimpse of the recommendations the agency will present to Congress for accelerating the mobile broadband sector, outlining plans for an ambitious overhaul of the wireless spectrum policies that would aim to open large portions of the airwaves for wireless data networks.

Speaking here at the New American Foundation, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the commission’s national broadband plan will lay out a proposal to establish a Mobile Future Auction, a reallocation scheme that would ask TV broadcasters and other license holders to voluntarily give up some of their spectrum licenses in exchange for a portion of the proceeds generated from reselling the airwaves at auction.

Genachowski said the commission will aim to free up 500 MHz of spectrum through the new auction model in an effort to meet the looming “spectrum crunch” as the explosion of mobile data traffic threatens to overwhelm wireless networks.

“No area of the broadband ecosystem holds more promise for transformational innovation than mobile,” Genachowski said. “Although the potential of mobile broadband is limitless, its oxygen supply is not. Spectrum—our airwaves—really is the oxygen of mobile broadband service.”

The wireless proposals are just one component of the comprehensive national broadband plan the FCC is due to present to Congress next month. The commission has been previewing portions of the plan’s contents this month, outlining policy proposals to use broadband to aid in broader administration policy goals such as energy and healthcare reform, as well as the ambitious “100 Squared” initiative, which aims to deliver service with 100 Mbps connection speeds to 100 million households by 2020.

Efforts to wrest spectrum away from TV broadcasters, which command a powerful presence in Washington, is likely to invite a heated political fight, though Genachowski emphasized that the proposal would be voluntary. Nevertheless, the chief lobbying arm of the broadcasting industry quickly signaled its resistance to the proposal.

“As a one-to-many transmission medium, broadcasters are ready to make the case that we are far and away the most efficient users of spectrum in today’s communications marketplace,” Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said in a statement responding to Genachowski’s speech. “We look forward to working with policy makers to help expand the roll-out of broadband without threatening the future of free and local television, mindful of the fact that local TV stations just returned more than a quarter of our spectrum following our transition to digital.”

Genachowski indicated early on in his tenure at the FCC that he aimed to tackle spectrum reform, which has long sat atop the policy agenda of the wireless industry. Genachowski this morning cited a Gartner study projecting that monthly data traffic would soar from 17 petabytes in 2009 to 740 petabytes by 2014.

“Even if you think a petabyte is something that sends you to the emergency room, you know that that’s a game-changing trajectory,” he said.

Genachowski said that the FCC would partner in its spectrum efforts with the National Telecommunications Information Administration, the agency that oversees the government and military allocations of the airwaves. Supporters of spectrum reform have called for a reallocation of some military spectrum for wireless networks, but those proposals would likely be an even tougher political challenge than revisions to the commercial licenses.

“We shouldn’t just focus on the broadcasters,” Matt Wood, associate director of the Media Access Project, said in a panel discussion following Genachowki’s speech. “If you think they’re tough, they don’t have tanks and airplanes.”

Genachowski touched on other recommendations that the FCC plan will include concerning mobile broadband, including the addition of a designated mobility fund within the Universal Service Fund, the federal subsidy program for telephone service.

Additionally, Genachowski said the commission would explore new paths to free up unlicensed spectrum, which in the past has been used to create technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as the networks that are being developed to tap into the TV white spaces spectrum.

The chairman also said the broadband plan would offer detailed recommendations for the development of a nationwide, interoperable public-safety communications network for first responders, a long-simmering policy priority outlined in the report issued by the 9/11 Commission.

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

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