Senate Panel Agrees on Need for Spectrum

There was general agreement in the Senate Communications Subcommittee Tuesday that the wireless industry needed more spectrum, including unlicensed spectrum for WiFi, but how much of it would be coming from broadcasters was less clear.

That was at a hearing on the state of the wireless industry, the latest in a series of communications oversight hearings.

Steve Largent, who heads CTIA: The Wireless Association, said that one answer was to "coerce" some of the 70% of usable spectrum from the government. He said he hoped the FCC could get back its target of 120 MHz from broadcasters, but was not at all sure that would happen.

Asked whether he thought the FCC was getting the spectrum auctions right, Largent said that remained to be seen, but he also said he was optimistic and that the FCC was trying to address CTIA's concerns.

CTIA and the National Association of Broadcasters are in agreement that the FCC's proposed plan for fitting TV stations and wireless carriers into a shared band is in need of major changes.

Thomas Nagel, Comcast SVP, who was a witness at the hearing, said one place to free up more spectrum was in the 5 GHz band where the company is already using spectrum for WiFi, an increasingly important part of its broadband footprint.

He said there should be a way to share more of that spectrum with incumbent licensed users, and that it was particularly important because it would not only allow it to serve more customers, but to offer faster speeds.

Nagel said Comcast has no desire to interfere with incumbent licensed users, but that WiFi was a secondary service that was built to be shared.

The witnesses were asked what the major stumbling blocks were to reclaiming spectrum. Largent said the vacancies at the FCC could affect the timing of the auction, which he said needed to be kept on schedule. He also said it was hard to get spectrum from the government, and that there was no guarantee broadcasters would buy in to the auction -- which is voluntary -- though he said CTIA was working with them.

Steven Berry, president of the Competitive Carriers Association, agreed that the government was an impediment to freeing up more spectrum. He also said that given that most people "listen" to broadcasting over satellite or cable -- he presumably meant "watch" as well -- they needed to get it from broadcasters as well.

Nagel suggested one impediment was the sense of incumbency, or an "I own it" approach to license spectrum that should give way to a new spectrum sharing model.

Subcommittee chairman Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) asked whether mobile broadcast TV could be helpful in relieving some of that wireless spectrum traffic, which is now predominately video. Cisco executive Doug Webster said that was a possibility, but that video was mostly on-demand.

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.