Carriers, regulators and lawmakers all agree over the need for more spectrum, but efforts to expand it are often mired by political infighting, which could hamper the latest efforts to resolve the shortage.
The current bill in Congress to extend the payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits includes FCC authorization of incentive spectrum auctions, which will expand airwaves, bring service to rural areas and ease data congestion on networks.
Revenue from wireless auctions is expected to offset the tax cuts and unemployment benefits. Voluntary spectrum auctions, in which broadcasters give up their share of under-used spectrum for auction in exchange for part of the proceeds, generates substantial income for the government and can ease the looming spectrum crunch to expand mobile broadband services.
The current bipartisan agreement to move forward with spectrum auctions heralds some concrete first steps forward, which was previously mired in political infighting.
Last summer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s proposal to end the debt ceiling stalemate included giving U.S. regulators the authority to hold a spectrum auction, but the idea stalled along with the debate.
Last fall, President Obama featured wireless spectrum auctions in his American Jobs Act, which became part of the “super committee” budget review process that eventually failed because of lack of consensus.
After failing to get traction last year, FCC chief Julius Genachowski urged immediate incentive auctions at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show, and warned of negative consequences if the lawmakers continue to debate, but not act.
Nearly all parties involved agree spectrum auctions are a win-win scenario, easing carriers’ spectrum fears and generating revenue for the government. There is broad agreement between political parties on the need for spectrum auctions, the role of the FCC in authorizing the sale, and the idea to set aside a portion of un-auctioned spectrum at no cost to the public safety community.
But the idea to build a nationwide wireless network for first responders has drawn ire from the Republican party, which has tied up spectrum expansion with political maneuvering. For example, some House Republicans expressed concern that using this spectrum, called D-block, for public safety would not generate revenue, so they couldn’t support the legislation.
In addition to lawmakers debating the issue of spectrum auctions in legislative bills, several industries and their corresponding lobbying groups are also in conflict over the airwaves.
Just last week, the FCC, which had earlier given LightSquared’s proposed network conditional approval, said the company’s plan would interfere with GPS receivers, a conclusion many felt was influenced by the GPS industry’s successful lobbying effort to quash the plans.
LightSquared was planning to use just under half the amount the FCC identified as possible wireless broadband spectrum in the satellite bands. LightSquared’s network, which would have sold wholesale 4G LTE access to other carriers like Sprint, promised to cover more than 260 million consumers and present another major competitor in a market dominated by AT&T and Verizon.
The ensuing debate over how to balance the GPS’s industry’s concerns the network would interfere with existing GPS devices with LightSquared’s offer of concessions, played out in a series of tests to show the interference’s extent. In the end, the GPS industry, backed by such heavyweights as the Federal Aviation Administration prevailed, amidst LightSquared’s claims the testing was unfair.
Many in the wireless industry have already called the looming shortage a “spectrum crisis,” but others believe with some consensus and creativity, the looming crunch isn’t necessarily inevitable.
Still, these two examples illustrate the ongoing discussion to secure more spectrum will likely face political considerations, and the way they are resolved on Capitol Hill will have a big impact on the mobile industry’s future.