White House Seeks Help Reclaiming Spectrum

In the treasure hunt that is the search for more spectrum, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration has discovered something of a mother lode: Namely, over 400 MHz of spectrum now in government hands that could potentially be freed up.

The question is, how? And the White House is now pushing the method forward in a move that could appease hungry cable operators and help the cause of broadcasters.

The White House wants input on which, or which combination, of at least nine different approaches will work to incentivize, or require, federal spectrum users—the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense among them—to give up spectrum for wireless broadband.

Cable operators are among those pushing for more of it, including through a newly created coalition, WiFi Forward, which wants to goose the government effort to free up the 400 MHz the NTIA has identified.

But broadcasters will benefit as well, since the more spectrum the government can get from its own, the less pressure there is—or should be—to get it from broadcasters.

Just as the FCC was charged with freeing up spectrum from commercial users (broadcasters, most notably) for wireless broadband—or more technically, for what the marketplace decides is the highest, best use—so the NTIA is charged with doing the same for government spectrum holders such as the DOD.

But the NTIA is getting some help from a White House spectrum policy team, created by the president to advance his goal of freeing up 500 MHz from commercial and noncommercial spectrum users for wireless broadband within a decade.

That team will ultimately advise the president on the best way to incentivize federal users to “give it up,” as it were, or at least share it.

That policy team put out a request for information on a report by the Science & Technology Policy Institute outlining those nine possible approaches. The report concludes that no single method is likely to provide all the answers. “Many possible combinations, modifications and offshoots of these approaches could be used to best adapt to the evolving economic, political and technological environment,” it concludes.

The nine options are 1) spectrum use fees that would encourage more efficient use; 2) a generalized spectrum relocation fund; 3) spectrum property rights; 4) a secondary spectrum market in short-term federal leases; 5) flexible access rights that allow for higher and lower priority uses; 6) so-called ‘spectrum Superhighways,’ where government and commercial uses share the roadway, but government has priority and will be compensated via synthetic currency (think spectrum Bitcoins) or real money; 7) zero out funding in a BRAC-like “spectrum” base closure regime; 8) have the Office of Management and Budget plan out spectrum needs as it does dollars and reallocate it; 9) in addition to a forced reallocation, allow commercial users to independently negotiate with federal spectrum holders for quicker exits.

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), a member of the Communications Subcommittee, applauded the effort to get more input, but also pointed out she already had a bill in the hopper that would help the cause by allowing federal spectrum users to get a payout for giving up spectrum, just as broadcasters are set to get.


FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has signaled he will try to restore the FCC’s network neutrality rules using the commission’s authority to promote broadband under Section 706, not by classifying Internet access as a common carrier service under Title II regulations.

Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act empowers the FCC to promote the reasonable and timely deployment of advanced telecommunications services.

That plan pleased cable operators, which have considered the Title II option a poison pill. But Wheeler said he was not closing the Title II docket, thereby leaving it available if his plan does not pan out or new rules do not pass muster with the federal appeals court that threw out the old rules last month.

Wheeler signaled last week that he hoped to have the new rules crafted by late spring or early summer and would seek plenty of input on how to do it.

In the meantime, he held ISPs to their promise to preserve network openness.

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.