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Think Tank: Gov't Needs to Give up Some Spectrum

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should look not only for television broadcasters to give up unused wireless spectrum but also government agencies, in an effort to provide more spectrum for commercial mobile broadband, a new paper says.

With mobile broadband use expected to explode in coming years, significantly more spectrum is needed, but the FCC can't just rely on U.S. TV stations to give up their underused spectrum, said the authors of the study, released by the Technology Policy Institute (TPI), a conservative think tank, Friday. The U.S. government should create a new agency, the Government Spectrum Ownership Corp. (GSOC), that leases spectrum to individual government agencies, the study recommended.

The GSOC, by leasing spectrum to agencies, would encourage efficient use of spectrum, with agencies returning unneeded spectrum, said Lawrence White, co-author of the study and an economics professor at New York University. That returned spectrum could be auctioned to commercial mobile broadband providers, he said.

Government spectrum is "the elephant in the room, the 900-pound gorilla in the room," White said at a TPI forum Friday. "There's a lot of spectrum, and there's a strong suspicion not all of it is being efficiently used."

The model for the GSOC is the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which subleases buildings to other agencies. That model discourages agencies from overestimating their real estate needs, White said.

On Wednesday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that the agency's national broadband plan, due out in mid-March, would seek to free up 500MHz of spectrum over the next 10 years for mobile broadband use. In his speech, Genachowski highlighted a plan to offer incentives for TV broadcasters to voluntarily turn over unused spectrum in exchange for a piece of the profits from an auction of that spectrum.

In rural areas, as little as 36MHz of the nearly 300MHz allocated for broadcast TV is used, Genachowski said. Even in large cities, half of the broadcast TV spectrum is typically unused, he said Wednesday.

Genachowski's announcement received a cool reception from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), with the trade group noting that TV stations turned over a quarter of their spectrum in the digital TV transition. The FCC sold that spectrum, in the 700MHz band, in an auction that ended in March 2008.

"As a one-to-many transmission medium, broadcasters are ready to make the case that we are far and away the most efficient users of spectrum in today's communications marketplace," Dennis Wharton, NAB's executive vice president of media relations, said in a statement. "We look forward to working with policymakers to help expand the roll-out of broadband without threatening the future of free and local television, mindful of the fact that local TV stations just returned more than a quarter of our spectrum following our transition to digital."

Genachowski, in Wednesday's speech, didn't focus on how to reuse government-held spectrum. White said he understands why Genachowski avoided the issue. Getting government agencies to give up spectrum will be difficult, he said.

While TV broadcasters hold less than 300MHz of spectrum, U.S. government agencies have exclusive rights to more than 620MHz of spectrum, and the government shares another 970MHz with commercial users, the TPI paper said.

The GSOC model would give government agencies the "right incentive structure," White said.

Others at the forum questioned whether reallocating government spectrum was the right move. Some government agencies may not use their spectrum all the time, but agencies like the U.S. Department of Defense need priority access to spectrum at critical times, said Matthew Hussey, a legislative assistant specializing in telecom issues for Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican.

Many government agencies, including the DOD, will see their spectrum needs increase in coming years, not fall, he added.

Instead of forcing government agencies to give up spectrum, the FCC and other policymakers should also focus on ways to share spectrum and other technologies that make better use of existing spectrum, Hussey said. "We have to make sure we meet the demands of all spectrum users," he said. "Reallocation ... alone isn't going to solve the problem, because that's a zero-sum game."

Kathleen Ham, vice president of federal regulatory affairs for T-Mobile USA, praised Genachowski's plan to target 500MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband. T-Mobile is "very supportive" of the FCC's efforts, she said.

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