H.R.3630 just cleared House-Senate negotiations, and a consensus has been reached regarding the spectrum related provisions of the jobs bill. The bill contains provisions to take away the FCC’s ability to set eligibility rules for the auctions, and to re-allocate unused TV frequencies -- these so-called “white spaces” -- as unlicensed spectrum. The deal that’s been made retains some of the FCC’s ability to preserve unlicensed spectrum, although not as much as we might have hoped.
All of this legislative language revolves around spectrum auctions, which are part of H.R.3630 in order to offset the cost of the extension of unemployment benefits. Spectrum auctions also have the keen attention of telecom companies and of tech companies, both of which are fearing the effects of a looming “spectrum crunch”. The white spaces between licensed TV frequencies are considered especially valuable “beachfront” spectrum, because of their ability to penetrate buildings, carry data traffic, and extend to rural areas. They are hotly contested; telecom companies want them for their mobile broadband services, but supporters of innovation want them to remain unlicensed so that new technologies can be developed over them as has been done in the past with services like WiFi and Bluetooth.
Let’s break this down.
The problem is, we have a limited amount of airwaves through which to conduct many different and competing services. Mobile broadband operators need to have spectrum licenses to use with an ever-growing demand for data use associated with smartphones -- Apple’s Siri alone causes the iPhone 4S to require unprecedented amounts of data , even compared to other data intensive smartphones. And consumer demand for mobile broadband services isn’t likely to wane -- according to AT&T, mobile data use on their network has risen by 5,000 percent in the last few years . Then there are more traditional uses of spectrum, like cable TV networks, radio, text messaging, and cell phone lines. Then on top of that, there’s unlicensed spectrum -- the “public” areas of our airwaves where innovations like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and baby monitors operate. The unused TV frequencies, or white spaces, come under this unlicensed spectrum umbrella.
It might not come as a surprise that AT&T is for provisions that would take away the FCC’s ability to set limits on who can participate in spectrum auctions, at least on the surface. They are one of the largest carriers and stand to lose the most if they are blocked out or limited in the auctions. Smaller mobile carriers, including Sprint and T-Mobile, sent a letter to Congress voicing their opposition to the provision, which they said would limit the FCC’s ability to promote competition. AT&T immediately hit back with a statement saying the smaller carriers want the FCC to “stack the deck in its favor” and that the auction should be “fair and open”. Several commentators have noted that AT&T’s vehemence on the issue is slightly puzzling, given they have managed to do pretty well under the FCC’s rules so far.
Far more pressing to us, though, is what happens to those innovation-friendly white space frequencies. The unused television frequencies are more than just empty white spaces. They are the public parks of spectrum. What happens in these “public parks” is vital to innovation and long term economic growth -- not to mention that everyone benefits from these spaces, including companies like AT&T that regularly use unlicensed spectrum to ease the burden on their own spectrum.
A group of 42 members of Congress, led by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), drafted and sent a l etter urging the preservation of unlicensed spectrum , arguing that “ exploring the use of beachfront spectrum, specifically in the television band, is vital given its ability to penetrate buildings, enhance rural coverage, and carry more data traffic than traditional Wi-Fi”. The letter also noted that in the band best suited for mobile broadband, there is currently 5 times more licensed than unlicensed spectrum. Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), a major proponent for innovation policy and who along with Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) co-authored the Startup Act , signed the letter and reiterated the sentiment at a Wireless Innovation Alliance and White Space Alliance event , saying “ America would miss an incredible opportunity to enable innovation on unlicensed bands.”
Negotiations, then, have until now been stalled by a lot of competing interests. It looks as if Congress is opting for a middle of the road approach that hopes to satisfy all sides of the debate. We’ll be watching to see what the the actual allocations of unlicensed spectrum will be and how this plays out for the innovation agenda.