FCC Chairman Takes Spectrum Pursuit to CES

Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski’s keynote speech at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was a familiar one: the pursuit of more spectrum for wireless broadband, an issue Genachowski put at the top of the FCC’s 2011 agenda.

To get that spectrum, Genachowski needs broadcasters to give up some of their spectrum. It’s a proposal that hasn’t been popular with broadcasters who need all of their spectrum to roll out mobile digital television, which is being showcased at the CES alongside new mobile devices.

Since the FCC unveiled its National Broadband Plan a year ago, Genachowski has pounded away at the risks of not securing enough spectrum to feed the fast-growing wireless broadband industry. On Thursday (Jan. 6), he painted a dire picture if demand for wireless spectrum were to outstrip supply.

“If we don’t tackle the spectrum challenge, network congestion will grow, and consumer frustration will grow with it. We’ll put our country’s economic competitiveness at risk, and squander the opportunity to lead the world in mobile,” Genachowksi said.

Genachowski’s speech also held a clear message for Congress, which needs to authorize the auctions for broadcasters that want to voluntarily relinquish spectrum. Late last year, the FCC paved the way for the auctions by lifting restrictions on how broadcasters could use spectrum (allowing two stations to share spectrum, for example).

If auctions are authorized, Genachowski is banking on it being enough to lure broadcasters to cash in. “Some broadcasters are making effective use of the capabilities of their spectrum, but some are not. For those who are not, their spectrum could be put to higher use for other purposes. What we need is a mechanism to enable market forces to unleash the value of that spectrum for broadband use, and we believe that incentive auctions are that mechanism,” Genachowski said.

The CES, firmly behind Genachowski’s plan to free up spectrum, was more blunt in putting the onus on broadcasters. Broadcasters “are squatting on our broadband future,” said Gary Shapiro, president of the CES. “This spectrum needs to be repurposed and reused.” Broadcasters have already given up nearly one-third of their spectrum in the transition to digital TV.