Obama to double commercial spectrum available for broadband development

National Telecommunications and Information Administration to coordinate effort

Calling wireless broadband connectivity key to America’s economic prosperity, President Obama today ordered that an additional 500 MHz of radio spectrum be made available for licensing over the next 10 years, a move that would double the amount of commercial spectrum.

“Few technological developments hold as much potential to enhance America’s economic competitiveness, create jobs and improve the quality of our lives as wireless high-speed access to the Internet,” the president said in a memorandum to heads of executive departments and agencies.

Obama directed the Commerce Department, through its National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to come up with a plan and a timetable by Oct. 1 for identifying the radio frequencies and making them available for commercial and government use. The Office of Management and Budget will see to it that “adequate funding, incentives and assistance” is available to agencies to free up the spectrum, Obama wrote.

The NTIA will be working with the Federal Communications Commission, which has legislative authority to oversee the nation’s radio spectrum, in carrying out this task. Although the president does not have direct authority over the FCC as an independent agency, the memo strongly encourages it to work closely with NTIA.

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"The Administration's strong actions on wireless broadband will move us significantly towards sustainable economic success, robust investment, and global leadership in innovation," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.

Today’s presidential initiative is an element of the National Broadband Plan, developed by FCC under the Reinvestment and Recovery Act, in which wireless access is an essential element of ensuring universal broadband connectivity in the United States. This plan has generated controversy between industry, which wants to minimize regulation in the name of technical innovation, and consumer groups, who want to ensure greater competition on prices and services.

One public interest group, Free Press, has issued a statement saying that any spectrum plan must promote competition.

“While today’s announcement is commendable, additional spectrum alone will not fix a broken market,” said Free Press policy counsel M. Chris Riley. “For consumers to realize the full benefit of this reallocation of our public airwaves, the FCC and Congress must take steps to promote competition in the mobile broadband industry.”

Ensuring adequate access to radio frequency spectrum can be a difficult subject because it is a finite commodity that is carefully managed to minimize interference among users of the various bands. Federal, state and local governments are large consumers of spectrum for emergency communications, national security and law enforcement, as well as for aviation, maritime and space communications.

The last major realignment of the RF spectrum in this country was last year’s shift from analog to digital television broadcasting, which freed up portions of the 700 MHz band for new licensing and development.

Protecting current users while at the same time accommodating and encouraging commercial development will be a challenge, which the president acknowledged, saying, “we can use our American ingenuity to wring abundance from scarcity, by finding ways to use spectrum more efficiently.”

Toward this end, the president directs the NTIA, along with the National Institute for Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation, the Defense Department and other agencies to cooperating in developing research and development plans for “innovative spectrum-sharing technologies” that will enable more efficient use of this limited resource.

The NTIA and the FCC are to complete their plan and timetable for this project by Oct. 1, and submit a progress report to the National Economic Council by April. Further progress reports are to be made in another 180 days, and annually thereafter.

The effort is expected to be broad based, and the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Transportation, State, Interior, Agriculture, Energy, Justice and Homeland Security, along with NASA, FAA, Coast Guard and the Director of National Intelligence are instructed to cooperate.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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