Republican Spectrum Plan Would Kill Net Neutrality

A proposal by U.S. House of Representatives Republicans to free up spectrum for mobile broadband use would remove net neutrality rules on new spectrum auctions and would make it difficult for innovators to use unlicensed spectrum going forward, a digital rights group said Wednesday.

Public Knowledge blasted the draft of the Spectrum Innovation Act, released prior to a Friday spectrum hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's communications subcommittee.

The draft bill would set out rules on how the U.S. Federal Communications Commission could auction spectrum from U.S. television stations, government agencies and other sources. The FCC, in its March 2010 national broadband plan, identified several sources of spectrum that could be turned over for auctions to mobile broadband providers, who say they are facing spectrum shortages.

But the Republican proposal would create several problems, Public Knowledge said. It would exempt the winners of future spectrum auctions from net neutrality rules that the FCC passed late last year, and it would allow television stations that give up spectrum to ask the FCC for a waiver of any agency regulations such as media ownership limits. The TV stations could ask for the regulation waivers in lieu of sharing in the proceeds of a spectrum auction.

"Until now, communications law has never been publicly put up for sale," Harold Feld, Public Knowledge's legal director, said in an e-mail. "This draft bill would do that by allowing broadcasters to choose which rules they will follow and which rules they won't if they sell their broadcast spectrum at auction."

In addition, the Republican proposal would require prospective users of unlicensed spectrum to bid in auctions going forward. That requirement would make it difficult for the FCC to create any new unlicensed spectrum, said Art Brodsky, Public Knowledge's spokesman.

"Who would pay for unlicensed spectrum? That's a great question," Brodsky said. "If no one did, under this bill, there would be no unlicensed spectrum."

Current uses of unlicensed spectrum include Wi-Fi devices, cordless phones and baby monitors, and the proposal would not take away existing unlicensed spectrum. But innovation and experimentation in unlicensed spectrum would "screech to a grinding halt," Feld said. "Given that unlicensed uses like Wi-Fi come from small and new companies, the future of new uses would be very bleak."

A committee spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to a request for comments on the Public Knowledge criticism.

The Wireless Innovation Alliance, with members including Microsoft, Google and Dell, also raised concerns about the proposal. The proposal to auction unlicensed spectrum would "hamper the development of new and innovative unlicensed products and services," the group said in a statement.

"Our position remains that our nation's spectrum policy must support the expansion of both licensed and unlicensed spectrum, and allow the FCC, as the expert agency, to have the necessary flexibility to make well-founded spectrum decisions," the group said. "At first blush it does not appear that this draft advances that spectrum policy."

The Information Technology Industry Council, a tech trade group, said it was encouraged by the committee's proposal to allow incentive auctions that would allow TV stations to share in auction proceeds if they voluntarily give up spectrum. New spectrum is needed for mobile broadband, the group said.

The trade group said it was concerned about the unlicensed spectrum auction proposal, however.

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

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