U.S. Spectrum: Who's Counting?

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2009-07-07 Print this article Print

Apparently no one. A Senate panel plans to vote on a radio spectrum bill that would inventory all spectrum bands between 300 MHz and 3.5 GHz, which includes the television and radio bands, in hopes of freeing more spectrum for wireless services.

New Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski likes to talk about a data-driven decisions on technology policy. A U.S. Senate panel will consider legislation July 7 that would provide Genachowski with a pile of new data on America's spectrum resources.

Hard though it may be to believe, no one seems to know exactly just who uses what when it comes to the use of the airwaves, particularly the government's. According to bill sponsor Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.), the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act before lawmakers would be a first step to improve the nation's spectrum management and allocation.

The bill directs the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) and the FCC to report on the use of all spectrum bands between 300 MHz and 3.5 GHz, which includes the television and radio bands. The Kerry bill is seeking wants information on the licenses or government user operating in each band, the total spectrum allocation of each licensee or government user, the number and types of radiators that have been deployed in each band and contour maps illustrating signal coverage and strength.

"Our public airwaves belong to the American people, and we need to make certain we are putting them to good use in the best interests of those citizens," Kerry said when he introduced the bill in March.

Once the data is compiled, the bill requires making the information available to the public through the Internet, though it would allow a licensee or government user to petition the NTIA or the FCC for a partial or total exemption from website inclusion. The exemptions would be granted only to the extent that each such agency determines that disclosure of the information would be harmful to U.S. national security.

"The best available data suggests that the majority of federal spectrum capacity is left unused -- a situation that has gone largely unexamined," Sascha Meinrath, director of New America Foundation's open technology initiative, wrote in a June report. "Strategic reuse of this spectrum could help obviate the need for significant additional frequency reallocations while enabling a wide range of creative new uses and social benefits."

Kerry cited both 2008's 700 MHz auction and the FCC's decision to allow unlicensed use of the white spaces -- interference buffer zones -- between television channels as examples of using available spectrum to raise money while also serving consumer interests.

"Last year's 700 MHz auction resulted in $20 billion for the treasury and will create greater opportunity and choice for consumers and businesses that need broadband service," said Kerry. "We also took a great step forward when the FCC established a way for unlicensed devices to operate in white spaces.  These two initiatives are evidence of how valuable spectrum is and how it serves as fertile grounds for innovation.  We need to make sure we're making as much of it available to innovators and consumers as possible."

The New America Foundation has a different take than Kerry's. The Washington think thank, which helped spearhead the white spaces initiative, thinks new generation wireless technology changes the game when it comes to spectrum management, undercutting the long-held notion that the airwaves are a scarce commodity.

Meinrath wrote that cognitive radio technologies make it possible to "borrow" unutilized spectrum in real time.

"By using a resource that would otherwise go to waste, intelligent wireless devices can provide a means for building new and complementing existing telecommunications infrastructures," Meinrath wrote. "If employed on a wide scale, policies that open up government spectrum for opportunistic unlicensed reuse have the potential to essentially eliminate the artificial scarcity that too often hinders efforts to develop next generation wireless communications systems."


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