Obama Administration: Spectrum Is Primary Tool in Broadband Competition

The Obama administration made clear Jan. 4 that it supports looking for more commercial and government spectrum to meet what it calls projections of "explosive" wireless bandwidth demands. In fact, it called making more spectrum available a "primary tool for promoting a competitive broadband market."

It also came out in support of bills that would require the FCC to inventory spectrum with an eye toward reclaiming or more efficiently using spectrum--"dynamic or opportunistic frequency sharing," for example--already allocated to folks like broadcast and satellite users.

That came in a filing to the FCC from the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which is the administration's chief telecom policy advisor as well as the FCC's spectrum cop counterpart for government users.

NTIA said the FCC needs to look at what it called concentrated markets for broadband where competition is lacking, including markets where there may be two providers but only one with sufficient speeds for applications like streamed video. But it also said the FCC should not use price deregulation as a regulatory response.

NTIA billed its comments as the administration's views on balancing regulation and market forces as applied to the Internet--specifically related to the FCC's national broadband plan.

But while it has joined the call for more wireless spectrum, the administration has doubts that wireless broadband is a panacea.

NTIA said that it was not at all clear to what degree 4G wireless broadband can supplant wired or make them a "viable alternative" in terms of price of performance, including how adequate it will be for in-building coverage or handling large numbers of data-heavy users.

The administration also raised the question of how or whether Verizon and AT&T, the two largest wireless companies, would supply wireless broadband in the areas where they also provide wireline.

On the policy side, the administration suggested the FCC may need to step in to address the combination of what it said was a concentrated broadband market and broadband service providers' incentive to use their control over facilities to favor themselves or disadvantage "competitive alternatives."

NTIA suggested that many markets are at best a duopoly of broadband service providers, and that the FCC should regulate accordingly, though it said it opposed rate regulation, either as a way to control rates or giving entrants access to facilities.

"In view of the difficulty that government has in determining efficient prices, price regulation is likely to stifle investment in broadband infrastructure or to discourage broadband service innovation," NTIA said.

NTIA also gave a shout-out to the FCC's planned expansion and codification of its open-access principles, including more consumer information on prices and speeds.

But in addition to giving consumers information about how broadband networks operate, NTIA advocates an additional "network disclosure rule" that it says will promote "innovation in devices, services and applications," an FCC mantra.

"[D]evelopers need information about how broadband networks change to ensure compatibility over time," said NTIA.

But, again, opening up more spectrum was its preferred method of insuring a competitive marketplace. That doesn't mean simply putting the new spectrum in the hands of the largest players, however.

NTIA said it agreed with a Justice Department filing that "there are substantial advantages to deploying newly available spectrum in order to enable additional providers to mount stronger challenges to broadband incumbents."

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.