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Spectrum Policy for Innovation

September 13, 2011
| Reports
In his February 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama called for a National Wireless Initiative (WIN) to make 4G wireless services available to at least 98 percent of Americans with a spectrum allocation consistent with the Plan and with an additional allocation for a nationwide public safety network. In June 2011, the Senate passed S. 911, the "Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act,” consistent with WIN. In July, the House Republicans offered a discussion draft titled the “Spectrum Innovation Act of 2011” that addresses the incentive auction and public safety issues in a somewhat different way.2 Spectrum incentive auctions should be employed immediately to transfer spectrum from legacy television to innovative mobile broadband, but the proposed public safety network requires further study. When users of smart mobile devices such as the iPhone and Droid communicate with other people or connect to web sites, a radio in the smartphone communicates with another radio in a wireless base station. In the United States, commercial radio communication uses radio frequency (RF) spectrum allocated by the FCC. The more spectrum smartphone users can use the more data they can transfer in any given period of time. Spectrum policy is therefore a key enabler of mobile broadband and mobile innovation.

The historical practice in spectrum policy has been for regulatory authorities around the world to assign rights to specific radio frequencies to applications according to theirjudgment regarding the “best and highest use” of each frequency. This system enabled regulators to harmonize assignments around the world, an important imperative given the fact that radio waves don’t recognize international borders. It worked well until all of the most useful frequencies were assigned.

Technology never stops progressing, however. We’re now in a situation where many of the initial assignments of spectrum are obsolete, so the task of spectrum regulation has become one of reassigning already utilized spectrum to new uses that have more social and economic utility than old ones. Spectrum incentive auctions are a quick and practical means of reassigning spectrum, so it’s important that Congress expeditiously grants the FCC liberal authority to conduct them.

Spectrum reassignment should not be viewed as a one-time event. Spectrum reassignment will become the normal activity of spectrum regulators for years to come, as we can expect that the uses we currently regard as “best and highest” today will be less attractive in the future as the menu of spectrum usage choices expands. In the ultimate future, advances in technology may make regulatory spectrum allocation unnecessary; systems may evolve that will enable broad scale self-regulation, negotiation, and inter-regulation of spectrum use; “smart radios” would be one major component of such as system. These systems don’t exist yet, so policymakers must become adept at the practical means of spectrum reassignment.

Administrative agencies are not effective at evaluating competing demands for a single resource such as spectrum. U.S. policy has recognized since the mid ‘90s that market mechanisms such as spectrum auctions are better, more effective means. Incentive auctions that effectuate the transfer of particular blocks of spectrum from one application and rights holder to another are the best and most practical tool currently available for ensuring that spectrum is used in a way that’s consistent with the public interest. In today’s most pressing case, television broadcasters hold valuable licenses to spectrum that could be used more effectively for mobile broadband, simply because TV is an older technology. If regulators were starting with a clean sheet of paper today, it’s unlikely that they would judge the current allocation of spectrum to TV to be in the public interest.

The incentive auction authority granted to the FCC by S. 911 brings spectrum license assignment up to date and should be supported. The planned public safety network is a step backward because it retreats from forward-looking, multi-purpose networking to the old application-specific spectrum allocations of the past that led to fragmentation of the spectrum map. There are ways to provide public safety with robust networking capabilities without fragmenting the spectrum map, however.

Policy Recommendations

1. Congress should grant permissive incentive auction authority to the FCC.

2. Broadcasters who don’t participate in the incentive auction should be reassigned to digital TV channels shared with other non-participating broadcasters.

3. The FCC should phase out existing application-specific licenses and work toward the goal of a creating a single network with multiple components.

4. The FCC should plan for a second DTV transition that redefines DTV as an application provided by multi-purpose networks.

5. The FCC should regard unauthorized spectrum use as the violation of the law that it is.

6. Spectrum licenses issued in the future should be subject to review and revocation on a five to ten year basis to allow for the ultimate deployment of Dynamic Spectrum Allocation systems when practical and beneficial.

7. Congress should clarify the rights of spectrum license holders relative to their neighbors and authorize the FCC to adjudicate such disputes in a rule-driven, case-by-case procedure.

8. The NTIA should develop a plan to privatize most of the spectrum currently assigned to government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels.

9. The national public safety network proposed by S. 911 should not be built as currently conceived. Instead, it should be a Mobile Virtual Network (MVN) running over commercial spectrum funded in part by auction proceeds and serving first responders.

10. The FCC should develop an empirical means for determining the relative value of exclusive spectrum licensing versus non-exclusive use.