Obama’s Support for Spectrum Better Do More Than His Support for Net Neutrality

President Barack Obama today signed a memorandum in support of freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband services. As gestures go, it’s a nice one, akin to the president’s support for network neutrality. But ultimately his memo may not mean a whole lot when it comes to getting the full 500 MHz.

Two additional items of interest for the technology industry were announced today: Along with the memo, the administration released a plan that reaffirms its commitment to more unlicensed spectrum (such as the two bands currently being used to deliver Wi-Fi ), which could be a boon for device makers as well as future wireless broadband services. The memo also dictates that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration work with federal research agencies such as DARPA and the NSF to “facilitate R&D that explores innovative spectrum-sharing technologies,” which could lead to more funding for radio startups.

However, when it comes to the spectrum itself, the president in his memo added his support to the efforts the Federal Communications Commission and the NTIA have already outlined with respect to reallocating and reapportioning spectrum. With 220 MHz of the 500 MHz needed currently used by agencies of the federal government, Obama’s memo will smooth the process of making that available. However, it’s the spectrum in use by commercial entities where the President’s influence will fall short.

I laid out how the FCC intends to get access to 300 more MHz of spectrum as part of the National Broadband Plan, but a significant chunk of those plans hinge on Congress taking legislative actions that would force its members to stand up against the powerful broadcast television industry.

About 120 MHz will have to be wrenched from the broadcast television industry, which isn’t thrilled about giving up its airwaves. The wireless companies that want that spectrum rightly point out that they’re willing to pay billions to license it (which the broadcasters haven’t), while the broadcast industry argues that it should keep the spectrum because of the importance of free, over-the-air-television in a democratic society. Technology firms should pay attention to this fight because a source inside the FCC says the unlicensed spectrum that the industry wants would likely come from the current broadcasters’ holdings.

In order to grease the wheels and ensure that broadcasters will willingly give up spectrum they’re not using (or not using efficiently), the FCC needs Congress to allow it to share the proceeds of any spectrum auction with broadcasters. But will Congress really want to give up billions in proceeds from the spectrum auction in order to pay off the broadcasters? It’s a thorny issue for any elected official, which is why Obama’s support is nice, but may not mean much. The FCC doesn’t need a memo; it needs a change in the law.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d):
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