With the Federal Communications Commission mandated by the recently approved stimulus legislation to draft a national broadband policy and broadband mapping efforts already underway, there is little doubt radio spectrum will play a critical role in future federal policy.
But, just as the broadband mapping program is designed to determine who needs what, just how much spectrum future wireless technology will need and how much spectrum the government holds that could be sold or turned over to the private sector are important questions that still need to be answered.
In hopes of answering at least half that equation, two U.S. senators are seeking a comprehensive inventory of the government's spectrum holdings in order to assess the best use of the U.S. airwaves. In legislation introduced March 19, Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), the FCC and the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) would have six months to report on the use of all spectrum bands between 300 MHz and 3.5 GHz.
"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 in a statement. "We need to make sure we're making as much of it available to innovators and consumers as possible."
Kerry pointed to last year's 700 MHz spectrum auction and the FCC's ruling that the interference buffer zones between television channels known as white spaces could be used to deliver wireless broadband and other advanced media services as examples of good uses of the public spectrum.
The auction brought in almost $20 billion to the public coffers with Verizon claiming the lion's share of the most prized spectrum. Verizon Wireless' new prime airwaves are considered particularly well-suited for broadband because the signal properties can travel great distances and penetrate mountains, buildings and walls. The FCC also placed conditions on the sale of the spectrum, requiring the winning bidder to build an open network to which users can connect any legal device and run the software of their choice.
"These two initiatives are evidence of how valuable spectrum is and how it serves as fertile grounds for innovation," Kerry said.
The proposed bill -- the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act -- also requires the FCC and the NTIA to include 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.
The legislation also includes an exemption for licensees or users if they can demonstrate that disclosure would be harmful to national security.
"Used by millions of consumers and countless businesses on a daily basis, wireless technology is a proud part of America's innovative history and a key to its economic future," Snowe said. "But as radio spectrum is already a scarce yet valuable resource in many areas, we must ensure that this public good is allocated and used efficiently for the needs of the American people."