White House backs FCC plans for more spectrum

President Obama signs a memorandum to make it a priority to get 500MHz more of wireless spectrum into the market within the next decade.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

The Federal Communications Commission's plan to free up 500 megahertz of additional wireless spectrum got a significant boost from the White House.

On Monday, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum that commits the U.S. to making an additional 500MHz of government and commercial spectrum available for auction and for unlicensed use within the next 10 years. This goal of getting 500MHz more spectrum in the hands of wireless broadband providers over the next decade is a key part of the National Broadband Plan that the FCC presented to Congress earlier this year.

With the backing of Obama, the FCC hopes that its efforts to free up additional spectrum will have more teeth. As part of his plan, Obama called on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and other government agencies to work together with the FCC in identifying spare spectrum and getting it to auction so that it can be used most efficiently.

"Putting this plan into action requires exactly the kind of cross-government collaboration outlined by the Administration today," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement."By taking these important steps, we can tackle the looming spectrum crunch, lead the world in mobile broadband, and drive our global competitiveness and innovative capacity. If we stand still, we run a real risk to our goals of supporting private investment and a thriving economy."

The additional spectrum over the next decade will nearly double the amount of spectrum in the U.S. that is allocated for wireless services. The FCC has already outlined a plan to get 120MHz of spectrum over the next three years from TV broadcasters. The FCC is also proposing getting about 220MHz from the federal government's holdings managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

TV broadcasters have resisted giving up spectrum for wireless broadband services. But during a speech Monday at the New American Foundation, Lawrence Summers, the White House economic adviser, reiterated that broadcasters would not be forced to give up spectrum. Instead, he said they would be asked to voluntarily give up spectrum or share unused spectrum in exchange for sharing in profits generated by wireless auctions.

"Our plan will allow all TV stations that currently broadcast, the right to continue to broadcast," Summers said. "This plan is based on volunteerism. If a station decides to share its spectrum or give up its licenses, it will share in the proceeds in the auctions."

He emphasized that no TV stations will be forced to give up their licenses or share spectrum.

"Decisions about spectrum use will not be made by the government," he said. "Our role is, the government's role, is to help shift the use of spectrum to highest value uses."

The National Association of Broadcasters seemed encouraged by the White House's reassurance that TV broadcasters would not be forced to give up spectrum.

"Expanding broadband is important, and broadcasters will work constructively with policymakers to help them attain that objective," Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of media relations for the NAB, said in a statement. "We appreciate FCC assurances that further reclamation of broadcast television spectrum will be completely voluntary, and we're convinced that America can have both the finest broadband and broadcasting system in the world without jeopardizing the future of free and local TV service to tens of millions of viewers."

Summers said that the plan in place will be a "win-win-win" for all parties involved, because it will create millions of jobs for Americans, enhance the United States' competitive standing technologically, and it will raise revenue for the government as well as for current spectrum license holders who wish to share their spectrum or sell their licenses at auction.

Summers wouldn't say how much revenue the spectrum auctions might generate, but he cited experts who say based on outcomes from recent FCC spectrum auctions that the revenue from new spectrum could be in the tens of billions of dollars. In 2008, the 700MHz spectrum auction racked up nearly $19.6 billionfor the government.