FCC chairman pushes policy agenda

Chairman Genachowski uses CES appearance to promote policy objectives like freeing up more wireless spectrum and encouraging competition in TV set-top boxes.

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
4 min read

LAS VEGAS--On his first visit to CES as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski on Friday reiterated key policy objectives to free up more wireless spectrum and encourage competition in the TV set-top box.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski Federal Communications Commission

Top on the chairman's list of issues to emphasize while chatting with Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro here at 2010 CES was theneed for more wireless spectrum to be used by wireless broadband providers. He said spectrum scarcity is a key issue that he faces on a daily basis as he deals with communications policy. And he said it was crucial that the agency deal with it sooner rather than later.

"Some people assume that all broadband is wired, but it's also wireless," he said. "Our data shows there is a looming crisis. We may not run out of spectrum tomorrow or next month, but it's coming and we need to do something now."

He said it's not only important to reallocate unused or underutilized spectrum, but it's also important for the agency to look at ways to ensure that the spectrum that is currently being used is being used efficiently. He said the FCC is looking into whether the agency can play a role in providing incentives or encouraging equipment makers and software developers to create products that use spectrum as efficiently as possible.

"We are asking the question of whether there is something we can do to incentivize greater spectrum efficiency in devices and software," he said. "I don't know that there is anything we can do in the short term, but it's a question that we need to ask."

He said the agency should also look at the role it might play in encouraging incentives for future research and development in this area as well.

Genachowski has made these points about using spectrum more efficiently in previous public appearances. And he has noted that the FCC also plans to look into increasing spectrum flexibility and opening secondary markets for licensed spectrum use. He has also said the agency will look into allowing more use of unlicensed spectrum, such as the "white space" spectrum that sits between broadcast channels.

But the most controversial proposal he has put forth involves taking away spectrum from current spectrum license holders, such as TV broadcasters and government agencies, and reallocating those licenses to broadband wireless providers.

The transition from analog TV to digital TV, which was completed last year, has freed up a lot of spectrum. And the FCC sees that some of this spectrum could be reallocated for wireless broadband use. But TV broadcasters have made it known that they will not be giving up any spectrum easily.

The National Association of Broadcasters says that much of this spectrum will soon be used to deliver new broadcast services such as mobile DTV. The standard for mobile DTV is now complete and will finally allow TV broadcasters to send signals directly to mobile devices, such as mobile phones. Broadcasters and device makers were showing off prototype products here this week at CES and a trial will begin in March in Washington, D.C., with a select group of consumers.

Chairman Genachowski acknowledged that new use cases are emerging, and he said the FCC would take those into account as it evaluates where it will get the needed additional spectrum. But he also emphasized that the need for more spectrum for wireless broadband services is so great that some spectrum will have to be freed up both from broadcasters and from government agencies.

"Based on the amount of spectrum that will be needed to meet the demands of the country, we will have to find spectrum from government and commercial uses," he said. "It's too early to say where a reasonable place is to get that spectrum. But it's hard to see a path where we don't have to reclaim some spectrum."

In addition to freeing up wireless spectrum, Genachowski also touched on another important policy objective: encouraging more competition in the TV set-top box market and connected TV markets. He said the statute that was put in place to encourage competition in this market and the previous efforts to get CableCard technology into the market to make consumer set top boxes available have failed.

And as a result, innovation has lagged in this area. Promoting competition in this market is important, he said, because it helps achieve the objective of the national broadband policy, which aims to provide universal broadband access to all Americans. And the reason is simple, he said. Today, only 75 percent of households have a computer. But about 98 percent of households in the U.S. own at least one TV.

"We look at this and say that maybe TV can be a part of the broadband solution," he said.

But he said it's clear that the lack of competition in this market has stifled innovation.

"You look at the Internet that has millions of applications," he said. "And you look at mobile, which has more than a 150,000 applications. And then you look at the TV in the living room and you see that the numbers are much lower than that. A big part of this has to do with this issue and the fact that the CableCard experiment has not worked."

Exactly what the FCC will do to encourage set-top box competition is not yet known. More details could be spelled out in the agency's upcoming National Broadband Plan, which was supposed to be presented to Congress next month. Earlier this week, the FCC asked Congress for an extension on that report. And it now expects to present its plan in March.