FCC’s Broadband Plan Brings Spectrum Shortage to Light

Published April 10, 2010

The Federal Communications Commission’s new National Broadband Plan says the United States needs more broadcast spectrum opened up for wireless broadband use, with the assumption it’s being wasted by the traditional broadcast television industry.

The looming question, however, is how to open that spectrum in a fair fashion.

“The FCC has indicated it will loosen spectrum usage rules and repurpose some existing spectrum allocations to new uses,” said Rick Rotondo, cofounder and vice president for marketing of Lake Mary, Florida-based Spectrum Bridge, a wireless broadband consulting firm. He said it “will be a challenge” for the FCC to come up with a plan to release “spectrum in such a short time in a way that is doable.”

Mandate Abandoned

The FCC plan, released in March, is something of a compromise in allowing broadcasters to decide whether to sell their spectrum to the government. Previous proposals, floated in the last several years, would have required broadcasters to give up some of their spectrum holdings for wireless broadband use.

The wireless industry has been urging more over-the-air spectrum be freed for broadband Internet use, and the television broadcasters don’t disagree. The pressing question is over how, and from where, that spectrum will come.

Challenging Problem

Rotondo says it will be a challenge for FCC to come with up a good regulatory approach to get there. First, the FCC has to produce an accurate spectrum inventory to identify what spectrum is being used by the broadcast and wireless industries, and for what purpose.

The second factor to be considered is the non-usage fee, which charges spectrum holders for spectrum when it is not being used. The third is creating a more robust secondary market for trading spectrum access and licenses. All of these should help free up spectrum for new innovative applications, Rotondo says.

“We support this [movement], and also agree that it should explore ways to make the secondary market more robust,” Rotondo said. “This will help spectrum holders to more easily sell or lease their existing spectrum licenses to others who can put them to a higher, better use.

“This plan enables free market mechanisms to reallocate it efficiently,” he added. “Secondary market mechanisms already enacted by the FCC will also enable public and private networks to disaggregate or partition spectrum licenses available on the secondary market so that they can buy or lease only the amount of spectrum resources they really need.”

Economic Incentive Is Key

Rotondo adds the FCC “realizes it must give broadcasters an economic incentive to participate voluntarily in this plan.”

“In addition to that,” Rotondo said, “the FCC can ease the transition by enacting flexible policies that help broadcasters transition to new, more cost-effective network architectures or business models. If the pain of transition is eased and the broadcasters see real benefits, then they are more likely to be interested.

“To its credit, the FCC has indicated that they are open to exploring these options and more,” he said.

New Uses, Applications

Scott Bergmann, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs for the Washington, DC-based CTIA-The Wireless Association, says spectrum being used infefficiently should be reallocated.

“The real reason spectrum is a priority is because folks are seeing applications and uses of wireless technology are exploding,” he said.

“New applications and uses are at our fingertips, so consumers are demanding more wireless service,” Bergmann added. “The wireless industry needs spectrum to make this happen and meet consumer needs. The market is a key element here.

“Consumers have made it clear that they want to be able to access the mobile Internet wherever and whenever they want,” he said.

Difficulties in Freeing Spectrum

Steve Berry, CEO of the Washington, DC-based Rural Cellular Association (RCA), says the process of increasing spectrum capabilities for wireless—in which potential spectrum opportunities are discovered in an auction—can be difficult.

“Looking at the trends of recent auctions, it can take eight to 10 years to relocate current users of spectrum and make it available at auction,” Berry said.

Berry says there is an immediate need to fully utilize the spectrum already available to wireless.

“The FCC should look for increased flexibility to repurpose or reassign spectrum not currently being used in some small and rural markets,” he added.

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.