DOJ Urges More Spectrum for Competitive Environment

The Department of Justice says the Federal Communications Commission needs to provide more spectrum to competitors who are seeking to provide wireless broadband services to compete with traditional wireline DSL and cable modem giants.

The Department of Justice told the Federal Communications Commission Jan. 4 that the FCC should make more spectrum available to wireless broadband providers to promote competition in high-speed Internet services, which is currently dominated by the telephone and cable industries. The DOJ comments are in reply to the FCC's ongoing proceedings on a national broadband plan.
At the same time, the DOJ said the FCC should carefully consider any role such dominant broadband providers as AT&T and Time Warner would play in any new spectrum distribution.
"Both the incumbent telephone and cable companies are offering wired broadband services across most of the country, using fiber-optic, cable modem, and DSL services as the principal modes of providing residential consumers with broadband access," the DOJ wrote in its comments. "What is less clear is the degree to which wireless broadband services will provide additional competition in broadband markets going forward."
The DOJ singled out companies like Clearwire, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile, which are struggling to establish wireless broadband offerings, as in need of more spectrum.
"Stated simply, without access to sufficient spectrum, a firm cannot provide state-of-the-art wireless broadband services," the DOJ wrote. "Re-allocating spectrum that is being underutilized would encourage the deployment of wireless services and could help to make such services more competitive with wireline offerings."
Most industry observers and analysts are convinced more spectrum is needed to support the explosion in wireless products and services. The big question, of course, is where the spectrum would come from.
The FCC opened a new line of inquiry Dec. 2 seeking public comment on how to obtain more spectrum for mobile broadband purposes, including a controversial proposal for broadcasters to return much of their spectrum back to the government.
Under the proposal, first floated by the FCC's Blair Levin in October, broadcasters would return the spectrum in exchange for a portion of the proceeds of a new spectrum auction. Although broadcasters spent billions of dollars on the digital transition, promising viewers who still rely on over-the-air reception multiple channels, HD programming and mobile video, many television stations have yet to implement their promises.
At the same time, according to the Progress and Freedom Foundation's Adam Thierer and Barbara Esbin, "Traditional television broadcasters are facing unprecedented marketplace competition and serious financial turmoil that threatens their long-term viability. ... Traditional over-the-air broadcasters are losing viewers, advertisers, shareholders and money at a steady pace."
According to Levin, who is heading up the FCC's broadband inquiry, it's time to make a deal with broadcasters. Levin and other experts in the field are convinced the nation is facing a spectrum shortage as more and more Americans turn to mobile devices. The problem facing the FCC is that the high propagation spectrum needed for mobile broadband can only be found in two places: the television bands and from the military. The Pentagon is unwilling to give up any of its spectrum.
"It's about the needs of the public. The amount of people not using over-the-air television is down 56 percent over the last few years," Levin said Dec. 1 at a PFF debate over the proposal.
As part of its new inquiry, the FCC wants to know, "What would be the impact to the U.S. economy and public welfare if the coverage of free over-the-air broadcast television was diminished to accommodate a repacking of stations to recover spectrum?" Under the proposal, broadcasters would be reduced to offering a single standard definition signal in their markets.
Not surprisingly, broadcasters have given the FCC a frosty reception to the proposal.
"Broadband deployment to unserved areas is a worthy goal, and broadcasters believe we can help the FCC accomplish its mission without stifling growth opportunities of free and local TV stations and the millions of viewers that we serve," NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton said in a Dec. 2 statement. "We would hope policymakers would remember that after spending $15 billion upgrading to the next generation of television, broadcasters just returned to the government more than a quarter of the spectrum used for free and local TV service."