FCC wants broadcasters' unused spectrum to help meet growing wireless demand

The Federal Communications Commission is a key regulator of the telecommunications industry and plays an important role in shaping US. technology policy.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 11:29 PM

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said he plans to encourage broadcasters to give up unused spectrum for auction to wireless carriers, an initial step toward achieving an agency goal of making networks faster for mobile phones and tablet computers.

In an interview Wednesday, Genachowski said he planned to introduce a proposal at the agency's Nov. 30 meeting that would lay the groundwork for broadcasters to voluntarily release airwaves for sale to mobile carriers, which have been struggling to keep up with consumer demand for Internet-capable wireless devices.

His comments come as the FCC struggles to assert its regulatory authority over broadband networks in the face of court challenges and industry pressure.

Genachowski declined to comment on whether the meeting would include a vote on his controversial net-neutrality proposal, which would essentially require Internet service providers to treat all Web traffic equally.

"I have nothing to add to what I've said before," he said when asked whether he thought he would be able to move forward on net-neutrality rules if he didn't hold a vote on his proposal next month.

The agency has instead been focused on mobile broadband regulations. Last month, it approved a policy that would allow consumers to tap super Wi-Fi networks that are more robust and connect at longer-distances than current hotspots.

Analysts on Wednesday called the auction proposal incremental and said it would not provide immediate relief to users struggling to keep their smartphones from grinding to a halt in congested metropolitan areas such as New York. "I think it's best viewed as setting the table in the event that Congress approves incentive auction authority," said Rebecca Arbogast, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus.

Specifically, Genachowski said he would propose granting broadcasters the ability to share digital channels, giving them leeway to relinquish unused airwaves that could then be auctioned by the government. The FCC would also seek to free spectrum by improving reception on other airwaves and attracting broadcasters to those channels.

Genachowski said some spectrum would be available for experimentation by universities and researchers. The proposal also would explore whether broadcasters could re-lease their spectrum that isn't being used.

"There is a lot of work we have to do to take care of our nation's invisible infrastructure, our airwaves," Genachowski said. "The demands on our spectrum are increasing so rapidly that we know that if we don't take steps now and in the near future, we will have serious problems."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company