Senate panel debates radio spectrum policy reform

IDG News Service |  Networking

Witnesses at a U.S. Senate committee hearing agreed that changes are needed in the way radio spectrum is managed in the United States, but they clashed over whether wireless carriers and other companies should have exclusive and long-term access to chunks of the spectrum.

Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, took issue with the current U.S. policy for commercial auctions of radio spectrum. Companies expect to retain control of the spectrum they win in auctions, and often do, the Arizona Republican said Thursday, even though the auctioned licenses have expiration dates.

Radio spectrum is the range of frequencies that transmitters can use to send audio, video or data, ranging from TV and radio broadcasts to cellular phone signals to short-range wireless connections such as Wi-Fi.

Witness Michael Calabrese, director of the Spectrum Policy Program at think tank New America Foundation, suggested a lease arrangement, where companies lease radio spectrum instead of buying it. He called on the committee to reject calls for frequency license-holders to get exclusive rights, calling that approach a "giveaway at taxpayer expense."

But Steven Berry, senior vice president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, said companies would have little incentive to offer new wireless products without some assurance that their spectrum investments were safe.

"If the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) would have said at the end of 10 years ... there would be no guarantee they'd be renewing that license, I contend that there would be no one wanting to invest the billions of dollars required for that license in the first place," Berry said.

Thursday's Commerce Committee hearing examined the FCC's Spectrum Policy Task Force report, released in November, which recommends a variety of changes to the way the FCC controls the radio spectrum. The report is available at The 73-page report suggests the old "command-and-control" model of the FCC approving all spectrum uses moves too slowly to keep up with the demand for wireless services.

The report recommends the FCC move primarily to a combination of an "exclusive-use" model, in which spectrum licensees have exclusive and transferable use rights for some parts of the radio spectrum, and a "commons" model, where unlimited numbers of unlicensed users share frequencies.

Think of the commons model as much like the Internet, where all users can dial in and use bandwidth, and the "exclusive-use" model much like broadcast television, where a limited number of companies control the airwaves.

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