How Much Is That Spectrum in the Window?

The process of getting new spectrum out in the marketplace for wireless broadband, a key goal of the Obama administration, is turning into a slog, raising doubts that any new spectrum will be released by the end of this legislative year.

Hoping to jump-start Congress, the White House last week held a spectrum summit loaded with friendly technical and economic experts, along with the chief cheerleader of the initiative, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski.

At the summit, the White House released a letter from three Stanford University professors, signed by more than 110 economists, who said that spectrum auctions (which must be authorized by Congress) would increase spectrum efficiency and be a good move for the economy. The proceeds from an auction have been estimated at $28 billion.

But proposals in Congress that would clear the way for the FCC to hold the auctions are moving slowly. It doesn’t help that both chambers have been tied up in knots over budget issues that are unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Congress needs to sort out a lot of moving pieces. A bill introduced by Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., authorizes auctions for spectrum voluntarily relinquished by broadcasters but also proposes that a block of spectrum be devoted to public safety. Another bill by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, calls for incentive auctions but also a spectrum inventory. The Republican-controlled House has barely started on the issue but favors auctions as a way to feed the budget.

If there isn’t significant momentum on a single proposal by Memorial Day, there’s little chance anything will get done before September when Congress will turn to budget issues again and then toward the 2012 election.