Why the FCC’s Plan to Provide Enough Mobile Spectrum Falls Short

Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski today offered some details regarding the National Broadband Plan the agency will present to Congress next month. But he likely failed to assuage fears that the FCC won’t be able to free up enough spectrum for mobile network operators and their customers.

Speaking at the New America Foundation in Washington, Genachowski said the U.S. “is lagging behind” other nations when it comes to broadband, and he cited mobile as the most promising segment “for transformational innovation.” The key will be unleashing enough spectrum to meet the ever-increasing demand for mobile data, he said. From his speech:

For starters, although the potential of mobile broadband is limitless, its oxygen supply is not. Spectrum –- our airwaves –- really is the oxygen of mobile broadband service. Without sufficient spectrum, we will starve mobile broadband of the nourishment it needs to thrive as a platform for innovation, job creation and economic growth. And the fact is America is facing a looming spectrum crunch.

Genachowski said the FCC plans to help address that threat by releasing 500 MHz of spectrum over the next decade. It will hold a “mobile future auction” that will enable existing spectrum licensees — in other words, TV broadcasters — to give up spectrum in markets that need it in exchange for a share of auction proceeds. Such a move would allow mobile carriers to tap broadcast spectrum that is currently being used inefficiently, Genachowski said, and give broadcasters “more flexibility to pursue business models to serve their local communities.” Genachowski also cited the value of unlicensed spectrum in spurring innovation, and vowed to deliver a comprehensive public safety strategy that will leverage public-private partnerships between safety agencies and 700 MHz commercial providers, including licensees of the “D block.”

A mobile future auction may not actually free up much spectrum, though. The plan might be effective in rural areas, where carriers don’t need more bandwidth anyway; meanwhile most broadcasters have already indicated they’ll balk at selling spectrum they use to reach over-the-air viewers in urban areas. And even if such a plan were successful, Genachowski’s goal of delivering 500 MHz of new spectrum falls far short of the 800 MHz mobile network operators say they’ll need to meet increasing demand for data by the end of this year. So while both the mobile industry and the FCC agree that the National Broadband Plan must make new spectrum a priority, the commission’s efforts as revealed so far won’t meet the industry’s needs.

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Images courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission.