FCC's Spectrum Task Force Had Better Be Better Than the X-Men


The Federal Communications Commission today created a task force to help it bring 500 MHz of spectrum to market over the next 10 years as dictated by the National Broadband Plan. But since most of the hoped-for spectrum is controversial to one group or another, the folks behind this task force had better have some super-human powers of persuasion, or at least an adamantine skeleton that will hold up against  powerful lobbying.

Julius Knapp, the group’s co-chair and head of the Office of Engineering Technology, told me that its primary goal is to deal with issues that will arise across multiple FCC agencies as the spectrum portions of the National Broadband Plan are implemented, a quick synopsis of which can be found in the chart below. For more details, read my post on the topic.

But Knapp, an electrical engineer by training, will also be looking ahead to long-term spectrum needs (GigaOM Pro, sub req’d). Below are some of the upcoming issues Knapp says the agency and the task force are planning to tackle. And because every comic book hero has an arch nemesis, I’ve tried to focus on the players who will fight each of the FCC’s proposals.

  • Broadcast Spectrum: As we’ve explained in previous posts, the FCC is going up against the broadcast industry as represented by the National Association of Broadcasters with the hope of getting access to 120 MHz of underutilized spectrum. Already the broadcast industry is raising fear, uncertainty and doubt by saying that the FCC can’t start a spectrum proceeding without first doing an inventory of the current spectrum holdings as proposed in the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act, which recently passed the House and is awaiting passage in the Senate. However, a Knapp notes, the FCC doesn’t plan on dealing with formal rulemaking for reallocating broadcast spectrum until 2011 (it will open up the topic for comments in the third quarter), which should give it plenty of time to comply with the law.
  • MSS Spectrum — Also in the third quarter, the FCC plans to take a look at why satellite providers holding about 90MHz haven’t yet deployed mobile broadband. If the FCC decides to relax the rules requiring those spectrum holders to deploy a significant satellite network, expect the CTIA and wireless carriers to play the arch-nemesis role.
  • TV Whitespaces: This spectrum is between the channels used by broadcasters to deliver digital television and was a big issue in 2008. In the third quarter the FCC plans to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking on the topic that would enable equipment manufacturers and network operators to start delivering products and services that use the white spaces. The nemesis here is once again the NAB.
  • Unlicensed Spectrum: Finally, toward the end of the year the FCC will come out with information on what band of spectrum it wants to use for delivering unlicensed services like Wi-Fi. The agency is currently talking to equipment manufacturers and public interest groups to determine which blocks might work. Until we know the spectrum the FCC plans to use and how much it wants to offer without a license, however, it’s hard to pinpoint the nemesis.

The task force will also take steps to get the process for WCS, AWS-2 and AWS-3 spectrum auctions for next year, but there is less controversy around those. Regardless, Knapp and his co-chair, Ruth Milkman, have a grueling few years ahead of them.


Paul Kapustka

First they’ll have to get past Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who is blocking the seemingly simple bill that would just tally what spectrum is available and how it is being used.


Really, there’s lots more to come on the “villans” side if the FCC folks are the superheroes. But I like the idea of naming a Lex Luthor… candidates? Suggestions? (Seeing Ed Whitacre doing a GM ad was scary enough!)


Let’s hope Knapp will fight the good fight for the public, against selfish interests.

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