FCC Moves to Free Up TV Airwaves for Internet Use

The Federal Communications Commissions today moved to begin freeing up TV broadcast spectrum for wireless and fixed Internet use. The commission voted 5-0 for a notice of proposed rulemaking paving the way for the reallocation of broadcast TV spectrum that could ultimately lead to an auction of 120 MHz of spectrum. The FCC also approved several other moves geared toward more dynamic use of spectrum, all aimed at President Obama’s goal of making 500 MHz of spectrum available in the next 10 years.

Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said the rulemaking was necessary to head off a spectrum crunch that could stifle innovation in the U.S. The FCC also moved in September to establish rules on the unlicensed use of whites spaces, the under-utilized TV spectrum some believe can lead to Super Wi-Fi. The latest rules would lay down the framework for auctions that could raise $120 billion, although Congress will still need to approve any such auctions. The rules lay out several provisions:

  • The spectrum in the TV bands will be open to fixed, mobile and broadcast services
  • Two or more broadcasters can share a single 6 MHz channel
  • The limits on the power of VHF stations would be raised

The FCC also approved another notice of proposed rulemaking for expanded use of experimental spectrum licenses. The rules would allow universities, national laboratories, medical centers and others to experiment with spectrum with more freedom. Also, the FCC issued a Notice of Inquiry on ways to promote more intensive spectrum-sharing techniques. CTIA, the wireless industry’s association, praised the decision, calling it, “an important step to ensuring that we can meet America’s growing demand for mobile Internet access at anytime and anywhere.”

Broadcasters have cautiously supported the FCC’s move to auction off television spectrum, as long as it’s voluntary, said Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters:

“The NAB has no quarrel with incentive auctions that are truly voluntary. Going forward, we believe policy makers have an obligation to maintain digital TV services currently provided by broadcasters and to allow free TV viewers to benefit from DTV video innovations. NAB will opposed government-mandated signal strength degradations or limitations and new spectrum taxes that threaten the future of free and local broadcasting.”

There are billions to be made if the government sells off the spectrum and shares the proceeds with broadcasters. But there are concerns about further whittling away the spectrum that broadcasters use for over-the-air digital television. While TV broadcasting has become more efficient with the switch from analog to digital, stations have looked at pushing their own mobile TV initiatives that require additional bandwidth.

If the FCC can get the broadcasters to play along, though, this could help pave the way for easing the mobile data crunch. As Om reported earlier, we’re looking at a 700 percent increase in data usage over the next five years, as mobile device owners eventually consume one gigabyte of data a month. Cisco (s csco) earlier this year also predicted that all mobile subscribers will be using 3.6 exabytes per month on mobile networks by 2014. In that light, 120 MHz is just a start; the FCC’s vote potentially gets us some needed spectrum, but we’ll need far more in the years to come.

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