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FCC chair: 'Unleash more wireless spectrum or face doom'

TV airwaves grab 'top priority'

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CES 2011 Although he's facing strong – and at times rabid – opposition to his recently released Open Internet plan, defending the plan isn't the main concern of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.

"Unleashing spectrum to support mobile innovation is at the top of the FCC's 2011 agenda," Genachowski said on Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

"As evidenced by the trade-show floor, the consumer electronics industry is going wireless," he told the hundreds of foot-sore show goers who had stopped wandering that floor to listen to his talk. "The future success of this industry, and America's innovation future...depends on whether our government acts quickly to unleash more spectrum – the oxygen that sustains our mobile devices."

The reasons for taking that action, he said, are clear. "Without action, demand for spectrum will soon outsrtip supply. To seize the opportunities of our mobile future, we need to tackle the threats to our invisible infrastructure: we need to free up more spectrum."

Genachowski outlined what he believes will happen if more spectrum is, in his term, "unleashed," then painted a dark picture of what will happen if it isn't.

"If we do, we can drive billions of dollars in new private investment, fueling world-leading innovations, creating millions of new jobs, and enabling endless new products and services that will help improve our economy and the lives of all Americans.

"If we don't tackle the spectrum crunch now, network congestion will grow and consumer frustration will grow with it. We'll put our country's economic competitiveness at risk, and squander the opportunity to lead the world in mobile."

Genachowski's "essential tool" in his drive to increase this "oxygen" is a spectrum buy-back program known as voluntary incentive auctions. Under his proposal, the FCC would conduct auctions for what he calls "flexible wireless broadband" with the spectrum supplied voluntarily by such current licensees as TV broadcasters and mobile satellite operators, who would then receive "some portion" of the proceeds received in the auction.

A current licensee could choose to auction all or part of their currently licensed spectrum, combine with other broadcasters to share spectrum and auction off what's no longer needed, or choose to ignore the auction and hang on to what they've got.

"Keep in mind," Genachowski said, "that while about 300MHz of prime spectrum is set aside for TV broadcasting across the country, the percentage of viewers who watch broadcasting over the air – that is, who use that spectrum to watch TV instead of watching broadcast programming from cable or satellite – has declined from 100 per cent to under 10 per cent."

In other words, there's a lot of spectrum out there that's not being used to benefit the growing mobile industry, and the FCC chairman wants to "incentivize" it out of the control of current licensees.

That spectrum is owned by the public and merely licensed to the broadcasters, but Genachowski feels that the political wrangling and horse-trading that'd be required to pry it out of their hands without compensation would be a long and uncertain process.

"We put out a plan," he explained in justification for the incentives, "that we thought made a tremendous amount of sense, that would be – should be – bipartisan, that people could rally around and support."

When asked how soon his plan could be put in place, he said: "We could be in a position – if Congress acts – to auction this spectrum in the next year or two, and put the spectrum on the market."

Getting the deal done as soon as politically possible is critical, from Genachowski's view, seeing as how fast the wireless industry is advancing. "Every day that we delay will have a cost to the US in terms of our global competitiveness," he said.

Without gaining more spectrum, he said, "It's not just that we'll be frustrated as consumers with slow speeds and dropped connections. That's bad, but the even bigger risk is that if we don't have a world-class infrastructure here for mobile and broadband, if we don't have a very large market for cutting-edge devices and services, we run the risk that the next generation of innovation, the next great companies that are developing the new innovations, the new products, the new services, the new apps, will start in another country, and not here."

The US did a bang-up job of implementing and distributing technlogies in the 20th century, Genachowski said, giving such examples as the telephone network, computers, software, and the internet. "But a head start does not guarantee a win."

The sticking point is the US Congress, which must approve the voluntary incentive auctions plan before the FCC can act – and Genachowski's words were directed to the members of the House and Senate as much or more as to his CES audience.

With the mood of the current US Congress exemplified by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying that his top priority was making sure that Obama was a one-term president, Genachowski has his work cut out for him in making his own top priority for 2011 a reality. ®

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