NEWS ANALYSIS: A new bipartisan payroll tax cut bill contains broad authority for the FCC to auction new sections of spectrum, including frequencies currently assigned to television broadcasting.
The U.S. House of
Representatives and Senate, in a rare show of bipartisan action, have approved
a bill that would continue the payroll tax cut of 2011 for all of 2012. The
bill, known as the Middle
Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (HR3630)
, includes a
spectrum auction provision as a way to help the federal government pay for the
The provisions appear in
Title VI of the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by President
Barack Obama shortly after passage. The spectrum to be auctioned includes a
section currently assigned to government use between 1,930 and 1,995MHz that
can be auctioned for commercial use. These frequencies are fairly near existing
4G frequencies used by some carriers.
In a move that changes the
approach from the Federal Communications Commission practice when broadcast
television in the United States was changed to digital from analog, the new
bill would allow the FCC to pay television broadcast stations if they agree to
relocate their frequencies from one band to another.
However, the more
significant part of the bill is that it also allows the FCC to compensate
broadcasters if they agree to relocate from their UHF frequencies (meaning
anything higher than Channel 13) back to VHF frequencies (meaning anything from
channel 13 and lower). Since the bulk of U.S. broadcasters were moved to UHF during
the digital conversion, some broadcasters could end up getting their original
In addition to relocating
television stations, the
bill would allow the FCC to auction off white space spectrum.
is the band of frequencies between television channels thats intended to
protect one station from interfering with an adjacent station. Currently, that
set of frequencies is kept clear to reduce interference, but with digital
television occupying the broadcast frequencies, the relatively low-powered
signals from 4G communications arent much of an interference issue.
ability to relocate television broadcasters also means that the FCC can free up
sets of frequencies so that wireless carriers can have a consistent set of
frequencies available nationally. This increases the value of that part of the
spectrum, and makes life easier for carriers, and ultimately will make wireless
devices slightly less complex, and thus perhaps a little less expensive.
The relocation of television
broadcasters from one channel to another would have little impact on consumers
since the majority of people get their television through cable or by
satellite. For those who do get their TV over the air, all thats required is a
quick search (something the television set will do automatically) to locate the
new spot where the television station is broadcasting.
Once the television stations
are moved and a chunk of spectrum is opened up, the FCC can the auction those
frequencies to anyone who wants to come up with enough money. The proceeds of
the auction would be used to fund the payroll tax cut, or in those cases where
a television station agreed to change broadcast frequencies, it would
compensate them for doing so, since changing the frequency of a television
broadcast station is an expensive proposition.
Its also worth noting that
the bill would try again to establish an
emergency communications network
. This was tried before, but failed because
the governments restrictions on the use of the emergency frequencies made the
auction relatively uninteresting to carriers. Now it appears from the bill that
the carriers could use the frequencies for commercial operations as long as
they agreed to give first responders priority access during an emergency.
Other emergency features of
the bill that have little to do with making spectrum available for wireless
companies include an upgrade to the 911 system.
Assuming that all of this
happens as it appears it might, the wireless data spectrum could gain a lot of
important real estate. The 1,900MHz bands being vacated by the government would
provide added space in frequencies close to what wireless carriers are already
using, while the vacated television broadcasting frequencies would provide a
vast amount of space with good propagation characteristics and good building
penetration of the sort that carriers have been lusting over all along.
Its hard to figure exactly
what the white space frequencies would be used for because the individual bands
are very narrow and widely dispersed, but theres been some interest in finding
a way to use them. The auction provisions also allow the FCC to sell access to
microwave frequencies in the 5GHz region and above.
these frequencies could open up the possibility of a 4G service similar to what
was proposed by LightSquared
, but without the problem of adjacency to GPS.
Im pleased that Congress
has recognized the vital importance of freeing up more spectrum for mobile
broadband, both licensed and unlicensed, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
Although the legislation could limit the FCCs ability to maximize the amount
and benefits of recovered spectrum.
Genachowski noted the
inclusion of a broadband public safety network, and said, Our goals have
included developing fair, effective mechanisms for providing all carriers an
opportunity to obtain spectrum, promoting world-leading innovation, free-market
competition and mobile broadband access for consumers throughout the country.