Web & communication software

Obama Wants to Free up 500MHz of Spectrum

The U.S. government will work to free up 500MHz of wireless spectrum for commercial and unlicensed uses over the next decade, an adviser to President Barack Obama said Monday.

Obama's spectrum plan, which would nearly double the amount of spectrum available for mobile telephone and broadband service, largely mirrors a proposal set out in the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's national broadband plan, released in March.

The White House plan will seek congressional approval for the FCC to share auction proceeds with U.S. television stations that voluntarily give up unused spectrum, said Lawrence Summers, assistant to the president for economic policy and director of the National Economic Council. The Obama administration will ask for upfront planning and research funding for government agencies that agree to give up spectrum or relocate, Summers said in a speech at the New America Foundation.

"Opening up spectrum will .... create the foundation for new private-sector investment and economic opportunity in mobile broadband and a range of other high-value uses," Summers said.

New spectrum will create jobs, with mobile carriers spending money to build out 4G networks, Summers said. Mobile broadband will help bring broadband to rural areas and may become a low-cost alternative to fixed broadband, he said.

"Combined with increases of speed and functionality, the economic implications are likely to be profound," he said. "My guess is we can't really imagine what those implications will be."

Most of the freed-up spectrum would be auctioned by the FCC and the sale would likely raise tens of billions of dollars, Summers said. The proceeds from the auctions would pay for a nationwide mobile voice and broadband network for police and other emergency response agencies, pay down the national debt, and pay for upgrades to the nation's communications infrastructure, such as the air traffic control system, he said.

U.S. lawmakers and public safety officials have called for a nationwide voice and broadband network for emergency responders since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Many police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers responding to the attacks couldn't talk to each other because they were using different kinds of communications devices and networks.

Under the White House plan, the U.S. government will create a publicly available inventory of the spectrum currently used by government and commercial users. The goal of the inventory will be to allow spectrum holders and consumers to better understand how spectrum is used and to encourage new uses, the White House said in a statement.

Mobile-phone and broadband users are demanding more and more spectrum, with spectrum use rates often more than doubling in a year, Summers said.

Spectrum reform is needed to give the U.S. a competitive advantage over other nations that haven't assigned as much of their spectrum, Summers said. "Our early lead in developing and disseminating technologies of yesterday leaves us ill-equipped for the technological challenges of tomorrow," he said. "So much more spectrum has been spoken for here than in the emerging nations we find ourselves competing with."

Several trade groups and companies praised the White House spectrum announcement.

"The president's order will facilitate all federal agencies working cooperatively to identify spectrum availability and best manage this scarce resource," Vonya McCann, senior vice president for government affairs at Sprint Nextel, said in a statement. "If the plan's recommendations are implemented fully over the next 10 years, they will create jobs, promote innovation, and further expand the country's broadband economy."

But Robert McDowell, a Republican member of the FCC, said the agency can act on several spectrum initiatives right now. The agency could decide what to do with the D block in the 700MHz band of spectrum, which didn't sell in an auction that ended in March 2008, and it could take action on the advanced wireless services spectrum in the 1.9 through 2.1 GHz bands, he said. In addition, the agency hasn't followed up on a November 2008 vote to open up unused spectrum between television channels, the TV white spaces, he said.

"While I appreciate the spirit of today's White House announcement regarding long-term spectrum planning, for too long the FCC has not moved forward on a number of more immediate opportunities to put the power of key slices of the airwaves into the hands of America's consumers," he said in a statement.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantusG. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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