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Broadband Availability to Expand

Edward Wyatt|The New York Times
Monday, 28 Jun 2010 | 2:11 PM ET

The Obama administration is seeking to nearly double the wireless communications spectrum available for commercial use over the next 10 years, an effort that could greatly enhance the ability of consumers to send and receive video and data with smartphones and other hand-held devices.

President Obama will sign a presidential memorandum on Monday that aims to make available for auction some 500 megahertz of spectrum that is now controlled by the federal government and private companies, administration officials said Sunday. Most of that would be designated for commercial use in mobile broadband and similar applications, though aspects of the plan will require Congressional approval.

The effort embraces recommendations made by the Federal Communications Commission in its National Broadband Plan, which was released in March and encourages the expansion of high-speed wireless broadband services.

But some aspects could be opposed by television broadcast companies, which will be asked if they want to give up some of their spectrum for auction. Cable companies that have invested heavily in wired telecommunications networks could also lose from the new direction.

Proceeds from the auctions would go in part to finance the construction of improved communications systems for police, fire and other public safety agencies. Law enforcement agencies have proposed that parts of the newly available wireless spectrum be used for a dedicated broadband public safety network.

President Barack Obama
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President Barack Obama

Roughly 45 percent of the spectrum to be auctioned would come from federal government agencies that will be asked to give up allocations that they are not using or could share, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to upstage the announcement.

The remainder would come from unused spectrum already scheduled for auction or from broadcasters and other spectrum licensees who would be offered incentives to give up or share parts of their communications airwaves. Currently, the spectrum for wireless communications is about 547 megahertz.

Lawrence H. Summers, the director of the National Economic Council and assistant to the president for economic policy, is expected to detail the broadband effort in a lunchtime speech in Washington to the New America Foundation, a public policy institute.

“This initiative will catalyze private sector investment, contribute to economic growth, and help to create hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Mr. Summers said in a statement. “This policy is a win three times over. It creates prosperity and jobs while at the same time raising revenue for public purposes like public safety and increasing our ability to compete internationally.”

While it is not unexpected that the Obama administration would embrace some of the recommendations of the National Broadband Plan, the announcement is significant because it puts momentum behind actions that the F.C.C. does not have the authority to take on its own.

Specifically, the presidential memorandum will direct the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to identify federally controlled communications bands that can be made available within five years for exclusive or shared use by commercial companies.

Negotiations have been continuing between the White House and federal departments including defense, justice, state, Treasury and energy, which use dedicated government spectrum for official and classified communications.

The administration is expected to ask Congress to approve the use of some of the proceeds from an auction of federal spectrum to finance the upgrading of government communications equipment and systems.

Congress would also need to approve the F.C.C.’s use of so-called incentive auctions of spectrum that is already allocated to private companies, including broadcast networks. Those auctions would pay broadcast networks and others to give up unused portions of the spectrum that they license from the federal government, which would then be licensed to or shared with wireless companies.

Finally, Congress would have to designate how the money generated by auctions should be spent. The plan seeks to use some of the proceeds to build the public safety network that would allow police and fire departments from different jurisdictions to talk to one another in emergencies — something that generally is not possible now and that was identified as an issue on 9/11.

Next steps

Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the F.C.C. and an Obama appointee, welcomed the administration’s initiative on Sunday. “The administration’s strong actions on wireless broadband will move us significantly toward sustainable economic success, robust investment, and global leadership in innovation,” he said.

In the long term, companies that are developing emerging wireless technologies could benefit from the greater availability of wireless spectrum, industry analysts say. Consumers also could benefit from the actions, as wireless communications continue to improve and more convenient devices are made widely available.

Some spectrum also would be made available for free, unlicensed use by start-up companies and others, administration officials said. Such unlicensed spectrum has previously helped in the development of cordless phones, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth applications.

Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, a consumer-oriented policy group, said the interest of consumers will be most helped by auctions that help to promote competition between wireless companies rather than entrenching the dominant providers in the market.

Since the release of the F.C.C.’s broadband plan, some broadcasters have expressed doubts about the spectrum allocation recommendations. Dennis Wharton, an executive vice president at the National Association of Broadcasters, said that while expanding broadband is important, it should not be done at the expense of broadcasting, which provides free, local television service to tens of millions of Americans.

“We appreciate F.C.C. assurances that further reclamation of broadcast television spectrum will be completely voluntary,” Mr. Wharton said.

With the recent conversion of analog broadcast signals to digital, broadcasters returned 108 megahertz of spectrum to the government for auction. Some of the wireless companies that bought that spectrum have not developed all of it, leaving broadcasters wary of giving up more of their holdings to companies that might simply warehouse it, industry officials say.

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