Hill Hones In on Wireless Spectrum Policy

Wireless spectrum issues took center stage on Capitol Hill and elsewhere Wednesday, led by a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing looking at long-range planning for freeing up spectrum, particularly from the government.

Commerce chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said that the committee needed to look beyond the upcoming incentive auction to future spectrum needs.

He said the focus of the long-range plan should be on 1.) improving how government manages, shares, and relinquishes spectrum; 2.) identifying specific bands to open up for private and commercial use; and 3.) reducing the cost of deployment.

There was general consensus that the effort needed to balance licensed and unlicensed. Not surprisingly, witness Meredith Attwell Baker of CTIA: The Wireless Association, put the exclamation point on licensed. FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel talked about a balanced approach, but put in a plug for unlicensed.

"We need more Wi-Fi," she told the senators, and said that unlicensed needs to get a "cut" of whatever spectrum is freed up going forward.

Rosenworcel has argued that to pry more spectrum out of the hands of government agencies, they should be given a carrot rather than shown a stick. She continued that pitch at the hearing, saying the government should consider a version of the broadcast incentive auction for government spectrum users.

Baker agreed that would be a good idea, as did Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has teamed up on a bill to that effect.

Rosenworcel said the old method of going begging to government agencies, eventually getting the "dregs" and repurposing was too slow a process for the mobile digital age. She also said the congressionally created Spectrum Reallocation Fund could be updated to provide incentives for government sharing. Then there is allowing private companies to help cover some costs for moving feds.

Witness Blair Levin, former architect of the National Broadband Plan, which was all about methods of freeing up more spectrum, including the broadcast auction, said he had some doubts that a government version of the auction would work.

Among the other key issues raised at the hearing were:

1. Accommodating both vehicle-to-vehicle licensed users and unlicensed Wi-Fi in the upper 5 GHz band.

2. The impact of the Internet of Things on spectrum demand.

3. Getting the government to better reflect the value of unlicensed when it "scores" the impact of freeing up spectrum.

4. Freeing up mobile satellite spectrum (MSS) for wireless—something the FCC tried and failed to with LightSquared.

5. Spectrum warehousing—lack of deployment in rural areas despite carrier's spectrum holdings.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the committee, also took the opportunity of Rosenworcel's appearance to praise her leadership on spectrum policy and, noting that her renomination is before the Committee, advised the majority to take it up without delay.

Elsewhere on the wireless front: 1.) The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Internet of Things that also dealt with the need for more unlicensed spectrum, as well as the issue of V2V communications and the upper 5 GHZ band and 2.) The National Cable & Telecommunications Association responded to critics of its argument that the government needs to insure that wireless carriers efforts to use LTE-U technology does not outrun standards efforts to insure it does not interfere with cable Wi-Fi.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.