Tuesday night, in his State of the Union address, President Obama called for an expansion of high-speed wireless coverage in the U.S.; his goal is to bring it to 98 percent of all Americans. As if on cue, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced legislation intended to smooth the way.
Speeding adoption of wireless broadband and solving an impending wireless spectrum crunch has been a familiar theme for the Obama administration. The president’s Harvard Law classmate, Federal Communications Commission chair Julius Genachowski, has been working to execute the FCC's National Broadband Plan. But for the plan to work, Congress would have to reallocate the nation's spectrum and empower the FCC to manage it.
Rockefeller’s bill, practically a twin of one he introduced last August, would go part way there. As written, it gives more wireless spectrum to public safety networks and clears the way for some broadcast spectrum to be reallocated to wireless broadband via incentive auctions.
The bill also coincided with the FCC's order and report Tuesday to build out the framework for an interoperable public safety network for first responders.
One part of Rockefeller's bill would authorize the FCC to hold voluntary incentive auctions, allowing TV broadcasters to relinquish some of their spectrum for cash. The FCC has already taken steps to reallocate the TV spectrum when Congress authorizes the auctions by proposing new rules last November that would allow two or more stations to share spectrum currently held by a single station.
As long as the plan is voluntary, industry’s likely to be comfortable with the proposal.
"Broadcasters have no quarrel with incentive auctions that are truly voluntary, and the new legislation provides sound direction for that approach. We will work closely with Congress as it crafts spectrum legislation that preserves the ability of local TV stations to serve our viewers," said Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters.
But if this or similar legislation passes, there’s still a question about how many broadcasters might actually give up some of their spectrum, especially as the industry moves to roll out mobile digital television, a technology that requires all of a TV station's current allocation.
The more controversial part of Rockefeller's bill is the straight allocation of a section of spectrum, known as the "D block," to public safety. Both AT&T and Verizon support the bill, which would keep the spectrum out of potential competitors' hands. Connect Public Safety Now, a group of smaller wireless providers including Sprint and MetroPCS, support the FCC's original plan to auction the D block as a way to fund public safety. Congressional leaders, especially on the Republican side, also favor the auction approach.