With mobile broadband users gobbling up bandwidth at unimaginable speed and the prospect of new FCC auctions for more radio frequency years away at best, attention is turning back, once again, to the federal government itself. Federal agencies are the largest single holder of licensed spectrum. And they are notoriously unwilling even to acknowledge what, if anything, they’re doing with it.
In 2010, the FCC raised the alarm on spectrum in its National Broadband Report, estimating that mobile users urgently needed an additional 300 MHz. by 2015 and 500 MHz. by 2020. The White House followed up with an executive order directing the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration to identify as much spectrum as possible that could be freed up by government users.
Nearly two years later, the NTIA has now issued its first substantive report. After polling twenty different federal agencies holding some 1,300 frequency assignments, the report seemed to offer good news. The agency identified nearly 100 MHz. of desirable spectrum that the government could vacate within ten years. In some cases, it might even be possible to share the frequencies with commercial users during a transition period starting as soon as five years.
But behind the summary, the details proved less encouraging. Not one of the agencies believes its current uses were or would become obsolete by 2020, meaning that for every band being cleared, replacement spectrum would have to be found elsewhere—and elsewhere, as it turns out, is in every case a frequency already licensed to another public or private entity.
Relocation costs were estimated by the agencies themselves at $18 billion. Either the agencies didn’t tell NTIA how they arrived at these numbers, or else the report simply chose not to include the details. Perhaps that’s because the reported costs appear to have been reached simply by picking a number high enough to discourage the FCC from moving forward with the plan. (By law, the FCC cannot auction the spectrum if the expected returns don’t exceed the costs of relocation.)
Any sharing, finally, would be conditioned on new commercial users acknowledging the priority of any remaining government squatters, a factor likely to depress auction prices further.
Congress, it seems, is none too pleased by bureaucratic foot-dragging thinly disguised as enthusiastic cooperation. Earlier this week, bi-partisan leadership on the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced the formation of a task force that will "take a comprehensive, thoughtful, and responsible look at how to improve federal spectrum use.”
The committee went farther Thursday with the introduction of bi-partisan legislation that would require government agencies, particularly the Department of Defense, to clear out of a key 25 MHz. block of spectrum (a block included in the NTIA report) within five years. Under the proposed law, the FCC would be required to auction that spectrum for use by mobile broadband consumers, paired with frequencies in higher bands that has already been cleared. (Spectrum is often paired in this manner to enable devices to use different frequencies for sending and receiving information.)
Committee members don’t say so explicitly, but it’s hard to miss the implication that technology-focused lawmakers aren’t impressed by the slow progress NTIA has made in freeing up some of the government’s vast spectrum holdings. Not that NTIA is entirely to blame here—the agency only coordinates federal spectrum use; it has no power equivalent to the FCC’s role in private licensing and oversight.
Congress is right to give the agencies a swift kick in the butt. The spectrum crisis is real. It is already, as users in some metropolitan areas well know, having a negative impact on the remarkable expansion of mobile services, one of the few bright spots in a sour economy. We need to free up spectrum quickly, and stop coddling users—public and private—who are hoarding spectrum for which they paid nothing and with which they are hosting uses that are increasingly obsolete or inefficient.
The FCC and the NTIA are either unwilling or unable to move fast enough to head off disaster. So Congress needs to accelerate its deployment of both carrots and sticks. This week’s developments are steps in the right direction. But we need to be sprinting, not walking, toward real solutions to the spectrum crisis.
Larry Downes is the author, most recently, of “The Laws of Disruption: Harnessing the New Forces that Govern Business and Life in the Digital Age.” His earlier books include “Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance.” Follow him on Twitter @LarryDownes.