Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Winding Road to Spectrum Reform

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WASHINGTON—When communications regulators delivered their national broadband plan to Congress last month, the wireless industry appeared to score a victory, praising the plan’s recommendations to reallocate large swaths of spectrum for mobile broadband networks.

But the spectrum question remains highly unsettled, as the Federal Communications Commission would require congressional approval to buy back licenses from television broadcasters to then sell at “incentive auctions.”

Broadcasters are already gearing up for what promises to be a protracted fight in Congress over the issue.

“The play will be in Congress,” a senior broadcast industry source told

The official described the industry’s plans to convince lawmakers that it is false choice to position broadcast as an impediment to broadband service, and noted that broadcast spectrum remains the lifeblood of free over-the-air TV and will power the growing crop of mobile TV services.

The industry will vigorously oppose any legislative effort that would require broadcasters to relinquish spectrum, as well as another proposal in the broadband plan that calls on Congress to authorize the FCC to impose fees to license holders who aren’t putting their spectrum to what it deems the most efficient use.

The campaign will highlight the vital civic role of broadcast TV in providing local information in times of emergency, reminding lawmakers that just last year the transition to digital television was delayed for four months due to widespread concerns that millions of households would lose service because they hadn’t yet purchased the converter boxes needed to keep analog sets running.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has warned that if the FCC achieves its goal of reclaiming 120 MHz of spectrum from its members, dozens—perhaps hundreds—of stations will go dark.

On the other side of that fight will be CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, which has long advocated for policies to free up more spectrum for its members to boost the capacity of their high-speed data networks.

“It is clear that we need to make more effective use of broadcast spectrum and that we need to find a way to put a significant amount of this spectrum to use for mobile broadband,” CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent said in an e-mail to, praising the broadband plan’s recommendations as “a significant step in that direction.”

Of course, even if the FCC proposal wins in Congress, it is unclear how the commission would proceed in reallocating broadcast spectrum.

Some open Internet advocates are warning against selling spectrum licenses to the highest bidder in an auction model, as the FCC did in 2008, when Verizon Wireless and AT&T purchased about three-quarters of the frequencies freed up in the DTV transition.

“What we don’t need is more spectrum for the exact same companies that have been warehousing spectrum all across the country,” said Sascha Meinrath, the director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation. “The AT&Ts of the world don’t serve Indian country.”

Others, like Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, who is also a fellow at New America and the chairman of Free Press, envision a middle road that would see some licenses sold at auction, while leaving portions of the spectrum open and available for unlicensed use in the same model that gave rise to Wi-Fi and opened access to white spaces spectrum, another initiative the NAB stridently opposed.

“You always need some commons,” Wu said, calling for a “big fat unlicensed band somewhere” that would invite the development of innovative new networking methods from the technology community. At the same time, Wu isn’t dogmatic that spectrum must be considered a public good.

“I don’t hold sacrosanct the idea that it’s a public trust,” he said at an event New America hosted on Friday about the ills of the wireless industry.

Aside from the spectrum battles, which the NAB expects to drag on for several years, Wu, Meinrath and other critics of wireless carriers plan to continue to press for a series of reforms at the FCC.

The wireless industry, which came under fire last year for several practices that some lawmakers and advocacy groups argued were harmful to consumers, is likely to face another round of scrutiny as advocacy groups renew calls for new pricing rules that would cap early termination fees and text messaging and require providers to unbundle voice, data and text plans.

The FCC has already initiated a proceeding to establish net neutrality rules and apply a version of them to wireless carriers. But some advocates, while praising that move, would like to see the FCC go farther and establish the same open access rules to wireless that it imposed on wireline providers in the landmark 1968 Carterfone decision, which held that any lawful device could be connected to the phone network.

“This is literally what made the computer modem legal and what in many ways led to the development of the Internet that we know today,” Meinrath said. “Why wouldn’t we take what we already know works and apply it in the wireless realm?”

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

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