Yesterday, the President issued a memorandum making available 500 MHz of spectrum over the next ten years, to be offered at auction for wireless broadband services. It’s part of the implementation of the national broadband strategy laid out by the FCC in a policy document earlier this year. McClatchy has a report:
The president’s plan to make available 500 megahertz of federal and commercial spectrum over the next decade comes in anticipation of an exploding wireless global economy.
“The Internet, as vital infrastructure, has become central to the daily economic life of almost every American by creating unprecedented opportunities for small businesses and individual entrepreneurs,” the president wrote in a memorandum. “We are now beginning the next transformation in information technology: the wireless broadband revolution.”
The plan, which will free up spectrum for licensed and unlicensed mobile broadband, as well as allow for reallocation and sharing of spectrum, could generate auction revenues in the tens of billions of dollars from interested commercial companies.
The added spectrum could be used for smartphones, laptops and other technological innovations that already have helped transform U.S. economic productivity.
The telecom industry is quite pleased to see that much spectrum available for purchase, which they can turn around and offer to the public in new services, recouping their investment many times over. But the social and economic benefits are pretty clear – one report shows that every dollar invested in building out broadband could lead to $7-10 in economic growth. Larry Summers actually gave the speech announcing this, suggesting that he is involved deeply in setting this policy. And he used one phrase over and over in his speech: “Public action, private investment.”
What concerns broadband policy advocates like Tim Karr of Free Press is that, while increased mobile broadband is a positive for a host of reasons (innovation, productivity, new industries, etc.) is that there will be no selectivity in who can get their hands on the spectrum. Karr feels that the spectrum would inevitably “end up being licensed to the exclusive class of incumbents (most notably AT&T and Verizon Wireless) that routinely stifle innovation, smother competition and gouge consumers,” he said in an email exchange. Making the spectrum available is one thing; making sure it gets put to good use is another.
Karr suggests that Congress and the White House, along with the FCC, could promote competition in mobile broadband, not just through a spectrum auction, but by dedicating some amount of spectrum to unlicensed usage, available to smaller telecom players. “The FCC should also reinstate spectrum caps or tighter screens (to ensure that new providers have a chance in the marketplace), and impose and enforce build-out requirements to ensure that companies do not simply warehouse newly acquired spectrum,” Karr added. Finally, the FCC must enact their proposal to treat broadband as a common carrier service, so they can fully regulate it, especially given how much bigger broadband is poised to become with this spectrum sale.
You can read a full fact sheet of the Administration’s proposed activities on spectrum, as well as this smart paper from the New America Foundation reacting to the announcement. This all gets wonky very quickly, but the future of the Internet and whether a handful of gatekeepers will control access hangs in the balance.