FCC aims to free up 500MHz of spectrum for broadband

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission's upcoming national broadband plan will ask the nation's television broadcasters to voluntarily give up unused wireless spectrum, in exchange for a share of the profits when that spectrum is sold, the agency's chairman said Wednesday.

The FCC's national broadband plan, due out next month, will focus on freeing up 500MHz of wireless spectrum over the next decade, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said during a speech at the New America Foundation. As part of that effort, Genachowski said the plan will propose a "mobile future auction," permitting existing spectrum licensees to give up spectrum.

Genachowski stressed that participation in the mobile future auctions would be voluntary. "While overwhelmingly -- roughly 90 percent -- of Americans receive their broadcast TV programming in most major markets through cable wires or satellite signals, there are still millions of Americans who receive TV through over-the-air antenna TV," he said. "Broadcasters would be able to continue to serve their communities with free over-the-air local news, information, and entertainment, and they would be able to experiment with mobile TV."

Unused broadcast spectrum could be worth up to US$50 billion, Genachowski said. About 300MHz of spectrum is set aside for broadcast TV, but in TV markets with less than 1 million people, about 36MHz are typically used for broadcasting, and even in the largest TV markets, only about half of the broadcast spectrum is used, he said.

Broadcast TV spectrum in most of the U.S. is "woefully underused," said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA, a mobile carrier trade group. Guttman-McCabe praised Genachowski's proposal, saying it would free up valuable spectrum for wireless broadband.

It's critical for the FCC to find more spectrum, Genachowski said. AT&T's mobile data traffic has increased by 5,000 percent in the past three years, he said.

In addition, the U.S. is falling behind other countries in broadband penetration and speeds, he said.

"With this plan, we have a special opportunity to lay a foundation for American leadership in the 21st century," he said. "If we get it right, broadband, and in particular mobile broadband, will be an enduring engine for creating jobs and growing our economy, for spreading knowledge and enhancing civic engagement, for advancing a healthier, sustainable way of life. This is our moment. Let's seize it."

One audience member questioned whether it's legal for the FCC to share auction proceeds with broadcasters. Genachowski's plan may take some changes in law for it to happen, answered Matt Wood, associate director of the Media Access Project, a media and communications reform group.

A representative of the National Association of Broadcasters wasn't immediately available to comment on Genachowski's speech. The NAB has generally resisted efforts to take away spectrum from broadcasters.

The national broadband plan will also recommend ways for spectrum licensees to share spectrum, and it will look for ways to eliminate government red tape for carriers that want to provide mobile broadband service, Genachowski said.

Ben Scott, policy director of media reform group Free Press, said Genachowski's speech is one of the few recent examples where a policymaker proposed concrete solutions for problems with broadband availability.

"For ages, we had this debate about the problems and the benefits [of broadband], but without any real meat on the bones about how we were going to get from point A to point B," he said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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