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FCC Moves to Improve Spectrum Availability and Use By Taking from Broadcasters

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By Jonathan Charnitski and Rahul Gaitonde, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2010 – The FCC unanimously passed three measures aimed at improving spectrum availability and efficiency while spurring innovation at its November open meeting on Tuesday.

The first measure would reallocate over-the-air broadcast television stations so that two or more would share a 6 megahertz channel. The commission anticipates that channel sharing could free up to 120 MHz of spectrum, which would be reallocated to also carry wireless broadband. The move would comprise nearly one-fifth of the 500 MHz of spectrum the commission plans to make available for wireless broadband over the next 10 years as part of the National Broadband Plan.

Each commissioner expressed support for the plan, though some with words of caution to protect the various interests at stake. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn expressed concern for the millions of Americans, especially the elderly and poor, who rely on over-the-air television as their primary source of important information.

Commissioner Michael Copps stated that he approached the plan with “cautious optimism,” noting that it was important to preserve the integrity of networks to provide the best service and pricing to consumers. All of the commissioners, however, stated the need for reformed and more efficient spectrum use.

“Spectrum is the backbone of one of the most promising sectors of our economy,” said agency Chairman Julius Genachowski. “If we don’t act to update spectrum policies for the 21st century, we will run into a spectrum crunch… [Our need for] spectrum is too valuable and our needs for it too great for it to be used inefficiently.”

The proposed rule-making would seek to reclaim spectrum through incentive auctions, which would offer current licensees compensation to voluntarily give up their bandwidth. When questioned, however, Genachowski did not rule out the possibility of using other methods, such a leasing framework.

“Spectrum flexibility is smart policy,” he said. “Generally, we would consider all options to improve spectrum flexibility, but will focus on incentive auctions.”

The second and third measures would open up spectrum to new services and devices and experimentation based on dynamic spectrum access. This technology aims to improve network performance across a swath of spectrum. The allocation would allow for new experimental programs to spur innovation both in advancing new technologies and making existing technologies more spectrum-efficient. New experimental programs would require approval by the commission, which would issue one of three types of licenses: one for university and lab research, one for a geographic “innovation zone” for researchers, and one for medical research aimed at developing advancements in patient care.

In their comments, each commissioner cited the need to promote research and development in the wireless space to promote the U.S. as a leader in technological advancement. “The wireless marketplace is dynamic and explosive,” said Commissioner Robert McDowell. “It is one of the brightest rays of growth in the American economy.”

Industry weighed in on the agency’s actions. The Wireless Communications Association International released a statement which said in part: “The WCAI supports the commission’s efforts to make more spectrum available for wireless broadband by considering rules to enable mobile broadband use within spectrum currently reserved for TV broadcasters. The proposal is a critical step toward the implementation of the National Broadband Plan and underscores the importance of facilitating the most efficient use of this scarce recourse for the benefit of the industry and consumers alike.”

Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, said: “The commission’s actions will facilitate imaginative, new and innovative approaches to making more efficient use of spectrum, which will lead to increased benefits to consumers.”

Additionally, the CTIA, which is the main wireless association, supported the proposals. “We appreciate the FCC’s leadership in finding more spectrum for mobile broadband services. The U.S. wireless industry provides countless benefits for U.S. consumers and businesses, whether that’s through our capital investments, jobs or our innovative products and services,” the group said in a statement. “CTIA and its members look forward to working with the FCC, Congress and all stakeholders to ensure that significant amounts of broadcast spectrum are made available for auction.”

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