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Summary:

The FCC moved to begin freeing up TV broadcast spectrum for wireless and fixed Internet use in a decision that could ultimately lead to an auction of 120 MHz of spectrum.The vote could help the U.S. stave off a spectrum crunch as mobile Internet use soars.

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The Federal Communications Commissions today moved to begin freeing up TV broadcast spectrum for wireless and fixed Internet use. The commission voted 5-0 for a notice of proposed rulemaking paving the way for the reallocation of broadcast TV spectrum that could ultimately lead to an auction of 120 MHz of spectrum. The FCC also approved several other moves geared toward more dynamic use of spectrum, all aimed at President Obama’s goal of making 500 MHz of spectrum available in the next 10 years.

Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said the rulemaking was necessary to head off a spectrum crunch that could stifle innovation in the U.S. The FCC also moved in September to establish rules on the unlicensed use of whites spaces, the under-utilized TV spectrum some believe can lead to Super Wi-Fi. The latest rules would lay down the framework for auctions that could raise $120 billion, although Congress will still need to approve any such auctions. The rules lay out several provisions:

  • The spectrum in the TV bands will be open to fixed, mobile and broadcast services
  • Two or more broadcasters can share a single 6 MHz channel
  • The limits on the power of VHF stations would be raised

The FCC also approved another notice of proposed rulemaking for expanded use of experimental spectrum licenses. The rules would allow universities, national laboratories, medical centers and others to experiment with spectrum with more freedom. Also, the FCC issued a Notice of Inquiry on ways to promote more intensive spectrum-sharing techniques. CTIA, the wireless industry’s association, praised the decision, calling it, “an important step to ensuring that we can meet America’s growing demand for mobile Internet access at anytime and anywhere.”

Broadcasters have cautiously supported the FCC’s move to auction off television spectrum, as long as it’s voluntary, said Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters:

“The NAB has no quarrel with incentive auctions that are truly voluntary. Going forward, we believe policy makers have an obligation to maintain digital TV services currently provided by broadcasters and to allow free TV viewers to benefit from DTV video innovations. NAB will opposed government-mandated signal strength degradations or limitations and new spectrum taxes that threaten the future of free and local broadcasting.”

There are billions to be made if the government sells off the spectrum and shares the proceeds with broadcasters. But there are concerns about further whittling away the spectrum that broadcasters use for over-the-air digital television. While TV broadcasting has become more efficient with the switch from analog to digital, stations have looked at pushing their own mobile TV initiatives that require additional bandwidth.

If the FCC can get the broadcasters to play along, though, this could help pave the way for easing the mobile data crunch. As Om reported earlier, we’re looking at a 700 percent increase in data usage over the next five years, as mobile device owners eventually consume one gigabyte of data a month. Cisco earlier this year also predicted that all mobile subscribers will be using 3.6 exabytes per month on mobile networks by 2014. In that light, 120 MHz is just a start; the FCC’s vote potentially gets us some needed spectrum, but we’ll need far more in the years to come.

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  1. I don’t get it. Bandwidth need is huge, spectrum is finite. Even with tech solutions to cram more bandwidth into the spectrum, it still is going to be finite. What happens in 20 years? Wah-wah, no more spectrum to sell. And what are these, a sale or a rental? Taking a finite resource and selling it once at today’s prices seems like a bad idea.

    1. Your exactly right – usage is rising at rate that no increase in dedicated spectrum by itself will satisfy. Technically, spectrum in the U.S. is public property and remains so even after entities are assigned rights through auctions and other mechanisms to use chunks of it. However it’s clear that carriers and other rights-holders don’t see it that way and will use their lobbyists and lawyers to maximum advantage to maintain ownership control.

      There are two big issues with this “fractionation” of the electromagnetic spectrum for use in wireless voice and data communications. First, is it necessary? Congestion can often be solved be building more smaller less-powerful less-intrusive cells without the need of additional spectrum allocation. Carriers don’t like this solution: it requires capital outlay without the benefit of gaining control of a finite public resource.

      Second, it require consumers to purchase new hardware, often with accompanying extension in service contracts, to utilize the new frequencies. As more frequency chunks are made available, hardware will become increasingly frequency locked to a specific carrier: good for carriers, not so much for consumers. Of course the FCC could rectify the situation by insisting that all mobile phones, for instance, certified for use in the U.S. are firmware configurable to work with any carrier’s mix of frequencies. You don’t hear that in the FCC’s plans which tells you who’s running the show in Washington.

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