House panel looks for more mobile spectrum

The U.S. Congress needs to find new wireless spectrum -- and new ways to share spectrum -- to avoid a pending spectrum shortage brought on by growing numbers of mobile subscribers and increased mobile data use, witnesses told a House of Representatives subcommittee.

The mobile voice and data industry is facing a significant shortage of spectrum in coming years, and there's little new spectrum in the federal auction pipeline, said Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA, a trade group representing mobile carriers. Mobile carriers are not now using all their spectrum capacity, he said, but CTIA has asked for an additional 800MHz of spectrum within six years.

The past two major spectrum auctions at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission each took more than 10 years from start to finish, Largent told the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. "We simply can't wait until 2020 or beyond," he said.

Largent, other witnesses and most lawmakers generally voiced support for two bills that attempt to deal with the predicted wireless spectrum shortage. The Radio Spectrum Inventory Act would require the FCC and the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to inventory the wireless spectrum available in the U.S. and issue a public report on the government and private uses of the spectrum.

The Spectrum Relocation Improvement Act would streamline the process for federal agencies to turn over spectrum that could be auctioned to private bidders. CTIA and other critics have said federal agencies have been slow to move off spectrum sold in the advanced wireless spectrum auction completed in September 2006.

There is no comprehensive inventory of spectrum use in the U.S., lawmakers said. "Before we can start identifying bands of spectrum that might be made available for these new services, however, we need to understand how existing spectrum is allocated and utilized," said Representative Henry Waxman, committee chairman and a California Democrat. "In simple terms, we need better information about spectrum usage by federal and nonfederal entities."

Two witnesses raised concerns about the bills, however. The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group, supports the bills, but is worried that broadcasters could get pushed out of the spectrum they're currently using to provide over-the-air service, said Gordon Smith, NAB president and CEO.

Stuart Benjamin, a new distinguished scholar in residence at the FCC, wrote a paper this year advocating that broadcast spectrum be turned over to mobile carriers, Smith told lawmakers. The Duke University law professor has said the paper wasn't "entirely" serious, but "that society would benefit if the wireless frequencies currently devoted to broadcast could be used for other services."

"Our national priorities should recognize the value that free over-the-air broadcasting brings to every American," said Smith, a former Republican senator. "Broadcasting and broadband are not either/or propositions as some have suggested; that's a false choice."

It doesn't make sense to eliminate over-the-air television, given that broadcasters, consumers and the U.S. government have spent billions of dollars this year to be able to receive digital TV signals, Smith said. U.S. television switched from over-the-air analog to digital broadcasting early this year, with freed-up spectrum going to commercial and public safety users.

New services will also merge traditional television and broadband services, and broadcasting is a good use of spectrum, Smith said.

"Broadcasting's ability to serve one-to-many in small bandwidth segments realizes tremendous efficiencies that cannot be achieved by any other service," he said. "At moments of national significance or tragedy, when millions of Americans are seeking information, broadcasting is the most efficient delivery system."

Ray Johnson, senior vice president and CTO at security contractor Lockheed Martin, also raised concerns about the spectrum inventory bill. The legislation would require the FCC and NTIA to disclose information about classified wireless test beds run by the company on behalf of U.S. agencies, he said. The bill should be amended to not require the disclosure of this classified information, he added.

But the spectrum inventory would be a helpful first step toward discovering what spectrum can be better used, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank. While there's an exploding demand for mobile services, in many areas, large swaths of spectrum aren't used or are used for brief periods of time, he said.

"In reality, the only scarcity is government permission to use spectrum," he said. "Spectrum capacity itself is very abundant."

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