Worried About Tablets, FCC Gets Serious About Spectrum

The Federal Communications Commission is planning the equivalent of a “take back the airwaves” campaign in order to address a perceived shortage in spectrum that will hit by 2013 thanks to skyrocketing broadband demand. The FCC released a paper (PDF) showing that demand for mobile broadband will rise to 35 times today’s demand by 2014, caused by the boost in mobile broadband usage on smart phones, but also the increase in video and media consumption on larger devices like the iPad (s aapl). There’s also a growing need for spectrum to provide machine-to-machine connectivity.

With forecasts of rising demand stuck in their heads, the regulatory agency released a paper detailing how much demand for mobile broadband would grow and how soon the nation would run out of airwaves with which to sate that demand. The FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski also said the agency will do the following things at its next meeting in November in order to address the coming spectrum crunch:

  1. Issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking aimed at getting access to about 120 MHz of spectrum currently used by broadcasters. The proposal will create the regulatory framework for a new type of auction that will allow broadcasters to give up spectrum while sharing in the proceeds the government earns from the licensing of the spectrum. Called an incentive auction, it requires Congressional approval as well as the FCC to create rules. As part of enabling broadcasters to give up spectrum, the FCC’s proposal will also change the rules broadcasters follow, enabling them to share channels.
  2. Issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to expand the agency’s experimental licensing program, which allows for the testing of new protocols and technologies such as White Spaces broadband to make it to make it easier to try them out to see if they work. Changes would include easing testing restrictions on universities, research organizations, and other institutions that are developing new services and devices that utilize spectrum.
  3. Ask for ideas on how to use spectrum to its fullest capacity via technological and financial means. Such ideas could include spectrum sharing databases, secondary markets for spectrum, spectrum sensing technologies and others.

These are important starts in order to bring more spectrum online quickly, but as we’ve said before, it’s not going to be easy. Because spectrum is such a crucial advantage for wireless carriers, they are incredibly involved in any process aimed at making more of it available. The nation’s broadcasters are also likely to fight the good fight to keep its spectrum for delivering over the air television, but also services such as mobile TV that they can control. While offering those broadcasters a carrot in the form of sharing in the licensing auction wealth and changing some of the rules they must follow, I’m not sure broadcasters in urban areas — where the need for spectrum is the greatest — will find the incentives enough.

The National Association of Broadcasters released a statement saying:

NAB looks forward to working with policymakers to ensure that efficient spectrum deployment matches actual spectrum demand, and that America’s leadership in providing the finest free and local broadcasting system in the world is not compromised.

Once the FCC has the spectrum freed up, the real fight will begin as carriers and technology companies jockey to place rules on the auction process that will lead to the largest advantage for them. In the 700 MHz auction in 2008, Google (s goog) did a stand out job of pushing for rules that opened up the types of devices carriers must deploy on networks using that band. The rules governing the auction will help determine the winner and accordingly how that spectrum is used. So far, there’s nothing in here about unlicensed spectrum, such as the frequencies currently used to deliver Wi-Fi or the proposed Super Wi-Fi (also known as white spaces). Should the FCC release more spectrum, only to auction it all off for licensed use, the nation will likely miss an opportunity for spurring innovation as well as for increasing competition faced by the largest carriers.

Image courtesy of the FCC.

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