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Wireless and broadcast industries begin spectrum debate

The debate between wireless operators and TV broadcasters over reallocating wireless spectrum has begun.

WASHINGTON--The wireless and TV broadcasting industries faced off for the first time at a congressional subcommittee meeting on the Hill on Tuesday, setting in motion what could be a long drawn out battle over whether wireless spectrum should be reallocated and where the government will get this new spectrum.

Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA, the wireless industry group, and Gordon Smith of the National Association of Broadcasters, were among the witnesses gathered before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet to discuss what the CTIA and the Federal Communications Commission have called a looming spectrum crisis.

CTIA and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski have said thatfinding new spectrum as well as new ways to use existing spectrum more efficiently are top priorities that need to be addressed to keep up with growing demand for new wireless broadband services.

"Spectrum is our industry's backbone and it is what allows us to continue to innovate and create new apps, products, and services," Largent said in a statement. "Without this additional spectrum, our industry will cease to provide U.S. consumers with the most innovative and most competitive wireless offerings in the world."

The hearing comes just weeks after the CTIA ruffled broadcasters' feathers when it filed comments with the FCC suggesting that some of the additional spectrum it seeks for wireless broadband could come from unused TV broadcast spectrum. Broadcasters oppose giving up their spectrum. And some representatives for broadcasters say they don't believe that there is a spectrum crisis.

"There is no shortage of wireless spectrum in this country," said John Hane, counsel in the communications practice group of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, which represents the TV broadcast industry. "There is a lot of spectrum already available that could be used more efficiently. That is why we need these bills to take an inventory of what is currently being used."

Indeed, NAB and CTIA both said they support the passage of the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act, which would require the FCC and the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to inventory the wireless spectrum available in the U.S. It would also require those organization issue a public report on the government and private uses of the spectrum.

Smith of NAB also said during his testimony that it's important for Congress to look at all spectrum holders to ensure they are using their spectrum efficiently rather than singling out the broadcast industry.

"NAB believes that any inventory of spectrum should be comprehensive," he said in his prepared testimony. "Let's look at all bands and all services, including federal government bands. And let's view how each service is using its existing spectrum."

The NAB also said it supports another bill in the House, called the Spectrum Relocation Improvement Act, which would streamline the process for federal agencies to turn over unused spectrum so it can be auctioned to bidders in the private sector.

It's clear that the CTIA and FCC are taking on a big fight with calls for spectrum reallocation. And Jim Cicconi, senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs for AT&T, said in an interview Tuesday that he admires the FCC for taking on such a battle.

"We certainly think that there is looming spectrum crisis," he said. "And I give the FCC chairman a great deal of credit for being courageous enough to lay out the problem and to seek what is best for consumers."

But he added that he also believes that the government needs to look at all sources of spectrum in solving this problem.

"That's why we agree there should be a spectrum inventory done," he said.

But skeptics, such as Hane, believe that a full inventory will actually show that no spectrum crisis exists. He argues that Congress may realize once it evaluates the data that there is no real crisis and that the current allocation of spectrum is sufficient to handle future growth.

Specifically, he says that wireless operators could be doing more with Wi-Fi and femto cell technology, which boosts radio signals indoors and then uses a wired broadband connection to send calls and data across a carriers network. He thinks this could help solve some of the efficiency problems that exist today instead of forcing TV broadcasters or government agencies to give up their spectrum.

But the CTIA argues that Wi-Fi and Femto cells are not enough to solve the spectrum shortage. Largent said additional spectrum is necessary to keep the U.S. competitive in the wireless market. And carriers such as AT&T, which is currently facing capacity issues due to heavy use of data services on devices like the iPhone, agree that freeing up more spectrum could help alleviate the problems the company currently faces.

Using a report from the International Telecommunications Union, CTIA calculates that by 2015 the U.S. and other developed nations will need about 1300 MHz spectrum to keep up with growing wireless broadband demand. Largent said in his testimony that the U.S. is lagging other nations in making additional spectrum available. Today, the U.S. has a little less than 500 MHz of spectrum that is commercially available. The trade group is asking the FCC to identify 800 MHz of additional spectrum that can be reallocated for wireless broadband use.

Largent pointed out that countries much smaller than the U.S. have much more spectrum available to them. For example, Germany, which has about 107 million wireless subscribers, will soon have about 645 MHz of spectrum available commercially. And the United Kingdom, which has only about 77 million subscribers will soon have 707 MHz of spectrum available for commercial purposes.

Largent said it is important for Congress to begin the spectrum reallocation process now because it takes years to identify and auction off new spectrum. The past two major FCC spectrum auctions each took more than 10 years to complete from start to finish.

NAB's Smith cautioned congressional leaders to not act hastily in reallocating spectrum. Not only could it hurt free over the air TV, but he said it could stifle innovation in improving digital TV. The U.S. just spent several years and billions of dollars converting to digital TV service, which uses spectrum more efficiently and often provides better service to consumers.

"Our national priorities should recognize the value that free over-the-air broadcasting brings to every American," Smith said in his testimony. "Broadcasting and broadband are not 'either/or' propositions as some have suggested; that's a false choice."

The bills before Congress are just the first step in what is likely to be a long battle for the wireless industry, government agencies and TV broadcasters.

"This is the first round in a 128-round match up," Hane said. "This is just getting started. So it's premature for the CTIA to begin talking about reallocating spectrum when we don't even have a full inventory of the spectrum that's currently being used."