Monday, July 27, 2009

Spectrum Policy in the Age of Broadband: Issues for Congress

A little light reading from the Congressional Research Service (CRC) for those at all interested in or even a bit concerned about the future of the RF spectrum from a policy standpoint.....

Spectrum Policy in the Age of Broadband: Issues for Congress


The convergence of wireless telecommunications technology and Internet protocols is fostering
new generations of mobile technologies. This transformation has created new demands for advanced communications infrastructure and radio frequency spectrum capacity that can support high-speed, content-rich uses. Furthermore, a number of services, in addition to consumer and business communications, rely at least in part on wireless links to broadband backbones. Wireless technologies support public safety communications, sensors, medicine and public health, intelligent transportation systems, electrical utility smart grids, and many other vital communications.

Existing policies for allocating and assigning spectrum rights may not be sufficient to meet the
future needs of wireless broadband and national broadband policy. A challenge for Congress is to provide decisive policies in an environment where there are many choices but little consensus. In formulating spectrum policy, mainstream viewpoints generally diverge on whether to give priority to market economics or social goals. Regarding access to spectrum, economic policy looks to harness market forces to allocate spectrum efficiently, with spectrum license auctions as the driver. Social policy favors ensuring wireless access to support a variety of social objectives where economic return is not easily quantified, such as improving education, health services, and public safety. Both approaches can stimulate economic growth and job creation. Choices about the direction of policy, however, can favor some industries over others.

Deciding what weight to give to specific goals and setting priorities to meet those goals pose
difficult tasks for federal administrators and regulators and for Congress. Meaningful oversight or legislation may require making choices about what goals will best serve the public interest. Relying on market forces to make those decisions may be the most efficient and effective way to serve the public but, to achieve this, policy makers may need to broaden the concept of what constitutes competition in wireless markets.

This report considers the possibility of modifying spectrum policy: (1) to support national goals
for broadband deployment by placing more emphasis on attracting new providers of wireless broadband services; and (2) to accommodate the wireless broadband needs of industries that are considered by many to be the economic drivers of the future, not only communications, but also areas such as energy, health care, transportation, and education.

Among the spectrum policy initiatives that have been proposed in Congress are: allocating more
spectrum for unlicensed use; auctioning airwaves currently allocated for federal use; and devising new fees on spectrum use, notably those collected by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC’s statutory authority to implement these measures is limited. Substantive modifications in spectrum policy would almost surely require congressional action. The Radio Spectrum Inventory Act introduced in the Senate (S. 649, Senator Kerry) and the similar House introduced Radio Spectrum Inventory Act (H.R. 3125, Representative Waxman) would require an inventory of existing users on prime radio frequencies, a preliminary step in evaluating policy changes. The FCC also has the opportunity to establish a new course for spectrum policy in the preparation of a Congressionally mandated report on broadband policy, due in February 2010.


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