Snowe, Kerry introduce spectrum inventory bill

The bipartisan legislation would require the FCC and NTIA to complete a long-overdue inventory of spectrum licenses, paving the way for reallocations needed for mobile broadband users.

Larry Downes
Larry Downes is an author and project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy. His new book, with Paul Nunes, is “Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation.” Previous books include the best-selling “Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance.”
Larry Downes
5 min read

WASHINGTON--Hopes for a solution to the looming crisis in available radio spectrum for mobile broadband users were raised today.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced legislation aimed at solving some of the biggest threats to the mobile Internet, feeding hopes of bipartisan solutions for spectrum woes in an increasingly divided Congress.

"The Reforming Airwaves by Developing Incentives and Opportunistic Sharing (Radios) Act will set the proper foundation to meet growing demand for spectrum through greater planning and coordination and by promoting more innovative and efficient use of spectrum resources," Sens. Snowe and Kerry said in a statement.

In particular, the proposed legislation would impose greater discipline in the allocation and repurposing of the limited radio spectrum usable for communications. "Unfortunately," according to the statement, "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."

The bill would also give the Federal Communications Commission needed authority to conduct "voluntary incentive auctions" for over-the-air television broadcasters and others who want to sell their rights to existing spectrum.

An inventory of existing spectrum licenses?
The text of the bill was not immediately available, but the joint statement indicated it was a revised and expanded version of legislation the two senators introduced in the last Congress. Neither that legislation nor a parallel bill offered by former Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA.) were enacted last year ahead of mid-term elections. Boucher, a longtime leader in Internet-related legislation, lost his seat in November.

The revised bill tasks the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration with completing a comprehensive inventory of existing spectrum allocations to commercial and government licensees respectively.

It may seem hard to believe, but there is no single published directory of who currently holds which licenses. Yet the lack of an inventory is a crucial obstacle in efforts to find underused or even unused allocations that could be repurposed for the explosive growth of the mobile Internet.

The bill also calls for greater coordination between the two agencies and "a cost-benefit analysis of spectrum relocation opportunities to move certain incumbent users and services to more efficient spectrum bands."

Speaking at an event earlier in the day, Boucher explained that in the interests of building up larger blocks of usable spectrum for mobile broadband, it may be necessary to move over-the-air television broadcasters to different channels. The Radios Act would impose economic rigor to make such relocations as efficient as possible.

Snow: Focus on voluntary auctions "one-dimensional approach"
Snowe, among others in Congress, has criticized FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's emphasis on freeing up spectrum through voluntary incentive auctions, in which over-the-air television broadcasters could auction some or all of their remaining allocations and share the revenue with the federal government.

Snowe has indicated that moving forward with such auctions before completing the inventory would be putting the cart before the horse. "My concern," she wrote in a letter to Genachowski in January, "is this one-dimensional approach could derail the comprehensive reform required to ensure the future needs of all spectrum users are met..."

Today, Snowe and Kerry said: "Incentive auctions as proposed in the National Broadband Plan and the [recently announced White House wireless] Initiative are commendable, but must be part of a more comprehensive approach by also promoting technological innovation and providing for a more robust management system."

The completion of the inventory has been something of a political football. The FCC itself acknowledged its importance in the National Broadband Plan issued in March 2010. After Congress failed to pass the proposed inventory legislation, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum directing the two agencies to develop the inventory as part of a requirement to identify 500Mhz of spectrum to be freed up for mobile broadband over the next 10 years.

In November, NTIA announced an initial identification of over 100MHz of federally owned spectrum it believed could be returned for mobile broadband.

Neither the FCC nor NTIA has completed the inventory, however, and the FCC in particular has made little progress. Based in part on a CNET post from January that indicated the agency was both stalled and stonewalling, Snowe wrote to Genachowski that she "was disappointed to learn the FCC has not yet completed this basic exercise."

Most in Washington, D.C. attribute the FCC's delay to a near-total dedication of its resources to Net neutrality wrangling following the successful completion of the National Broadband Plan in March.

(Also today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee delayed plans to vote on a Resolution of Disapproval that would, if passed, nullify the agency's December "Open Internet" rulemaking. Speaking at an event earlier in the day, Committee member Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said the Republican leadership had agreed to a Democratic request for a second hearing on the new rules next week, but that a vote on the Resolution would likely take place immediately after.)

There are growing doubts that the voluntary incentive auctions will free up the 300MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband users over the next five years called for in the National Broadband Plan or the 500MHz over 10 years called for by the president.

The National Association of Broadcasters is concerned that its members may be coerced into participating, raising doubts about the meaning of "voluntary."

If the broadcasters can't be induced to give up spectrum, the needed frequencies will have to come from government users, who historically resist giving up their allocations as well.

Technology will play a major role
Snowe and Kerry's bill is a promising step in sorting out just who has what spectrum and may make clearer where allocations are being stockpiled, underutilized, or maybe even just lost in the paperwork. And, in its call for the inventory to be completed before auctions begin, it also emphasizes the right place to start.

While Washington jockeys, there's also hope that new technologies will make it possible to share spectrum without causing interference between different users. The FCC, for example, recently approved rules that allow device manufacturers and other users to take advantage of unlicensed "white spaces" between television stations.

Femtocells, which allow home users to leverage their existing wired connections to create mini-cells at home, can also help ease the burden on cellular networks. Increasingly, as Richard Bennett of the The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation explains it, the wired network will be used as back-haul for wireless.

Speaking at CES earlier this year, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell indicated such technological fixes could be consumers' best hope for heading off overload of wireless networks.

No one wants to see mobile broadband fall victim to its own phenomenal success. The clock is ticking, however.

Updated at 9:30 p.m. to correct the state that Rep. Rick Boucher represented. It was Virginia.