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Two long-time broadband advocates in the Senate have introduced legislation that aims to reshape the management and allocation of wireless spectrum, aiming to free up new capacity for high-speed mobile Internet service.
On Wednesday, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who have worked together on spectrum issues before, introduced the RADIOS Act, which would direct the agencies that oversee commercial and government spectrum to conduct a thorough inventory of the current allocations of airwaves.
The bill would also authorize the Federal Communications Commission to conduct so-called incentive auctions, offering TV broadcasters that agree to give up their licenses a portion of the proceeds from reselling their spectrum at auction to wireless providers.
The legislation comes as the latest push from policymakers who worry that the surging use of broadband-enabled mobile devices like smartphones and tablets will overwhelm wireless networks if the government does not take steps to make more spectrum available.
"Unfortunately, the government's current spectrum management framework is inefficient and has not kept up with technological advancements to ensure providers have the necessary wireless capacity to meet growing demand for this finite resource," Snowe said in a statement.
Kerry and Snowe described their legislation as a complement to the plan the White House unveiled this year to deliver high-speed mobile broadband service to 98 percent of the country within five years. That proposal, which President Obama floated in his January State of the Union address and fleshed out in a speech last month, also endorses the incentive auction framework, which administration officials say will create a windfall that would help pay down the deficit even after TV broadcasters are compensated and the related government activities are funded.
Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.V.), who chairs the Commerce Committee on which Kerry and Snowe sit, has also introduced legislation to authorize the incentive auctions in a bill that would also provide for the creation of a nationwide, interoperable wireless communications network for first responders. Another member of the committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), has also introduced legislation that would grant the FCC authority to conduct incentive auctions. Any legislation to come out of committee could roll up provisions from the three bills.
In the meantime, the National Association of Broadcasters, an industry trade group, has been trying to chip away at the notion of a looming spectrum crisis, commonly espoused -- presented as doctrine, even -- by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and other administration officials and lawmakers.
The NAB has repeatedly said that it will not oppose incentive auctions that are truly voluntary, but warned that it will fight to defeat any effort to force its members to give up their spectrum or disrupt service in a market by forcibly relocating a station to another, less favorable band.
Most recently, NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith sent a letter to the chairmen and minority leadership of the House and Senate commerce committees highlighting the comments of Dish Network Chairman and CEO Charles Ergen, who told analysts in November that his company had not yet committed to building on its allotment of 700 MHz spectrum. Ergen suggested that if his company could not justify a buildout, then it might seek to dispose of the spectrum in some other way.
Smith seized on those remarks as the latest instance of a spectrum holder sitting on its allocation as it mulls its options, challenging the notion of extreme scarcity. The NAB has leveled similar charges against Time Warner Cable, and is prevailing on policymakers to press ahead with the spectrum inventory and evaluate the results before moving to auctions.
"NAB respectfully recommends that an independent agency -- perhaps the Government Accountability Office -- conduct a top-to-bottom review of spectrum hoarding and/or spectrum speculation," Smith wrote in his letter to the committees' leadership. "If America is truly facing a spectrum shortage, then it is imperative that policymakers receive an unbiased and thorough report on how private companies like Dish, Time Warner Cable and government agencies are using or warehousing this precious resource."
Kerry and Snowe's bill would direct the FCC and the National Telecommunications Information Administration, which oversees government spectrum, to conduct the auction the broadcasters are seeking. It also includes language to facilitate closer coordination between the two agencies.
Additionally, the RADIOS Act (in longhand: Reforming Airwaves by Developing Incentives and Opportunistic Sharing) would establish dynamic spectrum sharing and reuse programs in a bid to improve efficiency.