Time to Repurpose Federal Spectrum

Just days before the close of 2013 came the year’s second bill attempting to address the country’s impending wireless spectrum shortage. The most recent bill, proposed by Senators Guthrie (R-KY) and Matsui (D-CA), again proposes an auction of currently underutilized spectrum, but shifts the focus of the auctions from the private sector to the public. With its passage, bill sponsors hope to create new spectrum for wireless data providers and help improve the infrastructure for consumers of mobile internet service.

Wireless spectrum, the limited frequency range where all mobile and wireless data travel, has been quickly filling up over the past few years.  While 2013 saw some initial movement in the hunt to free up more usable spectrum, the year also saw the need for that spectrum reaching near crisis. Use of mobile data rose by over 65-percent in this past year alone, leaving some major urban areas primed to feel the spectrum pinch in the coming few months. Adding fuel to the already-raging fire, consumer’s last best hope—an incentive auction bill to free up spectrum from old broadcast television networks—was delayed this week until 2015.

But alas, the newly proposed legislation could hold the key to alleviating the spectrum shortage.  While old-hat broadcast television is certainly sitting on a wealth of underutilized spectrum, the bulk of this wireless gold sits in the coffers of Uncle Sam himself.

“The federal government is the single largest holder of spectrum below 3 GHz,” suggests Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for wireless trade group CTIA, in a statement.” And incenting agencies to relinquish bands they aren’t utilizing or using efficiently can help the commercial mobile industry gain access to the spectrum it needs to maintain America’s place as the world’s leader in wireless broadband service.”

The new bill, titled the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act, would attempt to do just that. The legislation would allow government agencies who’ve been bequeathed with a range of wireless spectrum to put their unused spectrum up for auction. Those agencies would then get to keep a portion of the proceeds from the auction to pad their own budgets.

Experts hope that this incentive would put pressure on those agencies facing sequestration and other budget cuts to find more efficient ways to use their spectrum (if they need to use it at all), and sell the rest.  

With more than 60-percent of the spectrum in government hands, there’s no doubt some excess that should be repurposed. The new bill hopes to be a big part of President Obama’s plan to free up that excess for private use to the tune of more than 500mhz by 2020.

But, an overly careful FCC could put consumers in a real pinch if this bill is treated like the last. Newly appointed FCC Chairperson, Tom Wheeler, put the brakes on the private auctions bill passed earlier this year. Wheeler cited caution as his primary reason. We have “but once chance to get this right,” he wrote in a post earlier this month. Now, with only 10mhz of spectrum finding its way to mobile providers in 2014, consumers need the government to act quickly with the Federal Spectrum Auction Act.

While there is much to add to congress’ list of New Year’s resolutions, consumers everywhere are keeping fingers crossed that finding a way to efficiently manage the heap government-specific spectrum makes the list.

Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization.  For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.

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