Senators Seek Wireless Spectrum Inventory

Published July 1, 2009

Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) are pushing for a comprehensive inventory of the government’s spectrum holdings in order to assess the future best use of U.S. airwaves.

The Radio Spectrum Inventory Act (S 649) would require the Federal Communications Commission and National Telecommunications and Information Administration to provide data on the licenses or government user operating in every band between 300 MHz and 3.5 GHz.

The survey would detail the total spectrum allocation of each private-sector licensee or government user and would map the signal coverage and strength of the wireless spectrum.

Valuable Information

Mark Fratrik, vice president of BIA, a broadcast consulting firm based in Chantilly, Virginia, says getting an initial report is a good idea because there is currently no good information on spectrum usage and availability.

“There’s a lot of the spectrum that the government uses behind closed doors for security purposes,” Fratrik said. “If what they are using can be presented without compromising security issues, that’s a good thing.”

Once an inventory is completed, the government can get a better handle on the spectrum available to auction, says Fratrik. He would like to see the auctions continue in the same manner as they’ve been conducted since the mid-1990s.

Public Service Considerations

Fratrik said he prefers for there to be auctions every few years so the entire available spectrum isn’t awarded at one time, because that could block out new service providers.

“Auctions enable companies that provide the best services to bid,” Fratrik explained. In addition, he said, “There should be a small part of the spectrum set aside for services that serve the public good.”

The FCC last year auctioned off the 700 MHz spectrum, considered ideal for wireless broadband, raising $20 billion for the federal treasury. Verizon secured most of that spectrum in the auction.

“The spectrum is a scarce resource whose demand is growing dramatically,” said Joseph P. Fuhr, a professor of economics at Widener University in Chase, Pennsylvania.

Important to Economy

Steve Titch, a telecom policy analyst for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, says the inventory idea is good, so long as the government continues to allow the market to operate, instead of the government using this information to pick winners and losers.

“The broadband issue is very important in that broadband has a tremendous impact on the overall economy,” Titch said. “This is especially relevant given the current economic conditions. Broadband technology has a tremendous multiplier effect which results in considerable economic growth. The literature is full of examples. Also, broadband has positive environmental effects. Therefore, broadband needs to be encouraged.

“The proper allocation of the spectrum has a tremendous impact on the overall economic environment and needs to be done in the most efficient manner to maximize consumer welfare,” Titch added.

Taking Inventory

“There is a need to take stock and inventory,” Fuhr said. “There are two basic issues. The first is that currently some of the spectrum that is already allocated is being underutilized and thus not being used to its best value. The second is allocation of the spectrum that is not yet in use. For these uses of spectrum an auction system is the best solution.

“This allows the entities who value the spectrum the most to have access to it and provide services to consumers,” Fuhr continued. “The consumers can decide whether this is the type of services that they want, and if not, the owners of the spectrum will respond to consumers’ wants so that they can obtain a return on their investment.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.

For more information …

Radio Spectrum Inventory Act: