Wireless experts: Give us broadcast spectrum

A group of radio frequency spectrum experts and wireless technology advocates called for the U.S. Congress to reallocate part of the television broadcast spectrum for wireless uses, during a congressional forum in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

"We have these vast empty storefronts of extremely valuable property," Thomas Hazlett, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, said of the TV spectrum. The broadcast TV band has 67 channels allocated, while the average U.S. city gets seven over-the-air channels, he said.

Hazlett joined Steve Berry, senior vice president for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, in advocating that more spectrum be allocated for wireless use, during a panel discussion on wireless Internet deployment sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus. Berry noted that more than 90 percent of U.S. residents do not receive their television signals over the air, instead using cable or satellite services.

A U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) goal to allocate another 100Mhz to wireless uses in the next 10 years "is not very ambitious," Hazlett said.

Berry and Hazlett noted that wireless services have 159Mhz of spectrum currently available for use, while most European nations have about 250Mhz of spectrum allocated for wireless. "We've taken a national asset, and I think we've made great things happen with a very modest amount of spectrum," Berry said of his trade association's members.

A representative of the National Association of Broadcasters wasn't available immediately to respond to Berry and Hazlett, but panel moderator Gerry Waldron, a partner at communications law firm Covington and Burling, challenged them, saying Congress has passed six pieces of legislation since 1934 designating the broadcast spectrum as cost-free to customers and separate from other spectrum uses.

"Congress has passed legislation saying broadcast spectrum is different," Waldron said.

The discussion, titled "Sell it, lease it, or give it away -- how can spectrum reform best promote wireless Internet deployment?" produced debate on which of those three models is the best way to decide how radio spectrum is divvied up in the U.S. Berry advocated sales and leases of spectrum, with some free commons areas. But he also complained that federal requirements such as enhanced 911 services on cell phones are slowing down innovation, compared to other wireless services such as Wi-Fi, which uses unlicensed spectrum.

"(FCC chairman) Michael Powell may be correct that regulatory requirements are in fact a wet blanket that covers the spark of invention and development in the high-tech industry," Berry said.

Michael Calabrese, director of the Public Assets Program at the New America Foundation, said the FCC should keep a chunk of spectrum open in an unlicensed commons. He asked the congressional staffers in attendance to consider spectrum uses that would allow companies and governments to "dynamically share these underutilized bands."

Soon, smart devices will be able to pick which bands of spectrum to use at any given moment, based on traffic and interference, he said. "Just as public highways are more efficient than privately operated toll roads, smart radios will allow us to evolve the airwaves to a system of open and shared assets," Calabrese said.

David Siddall, a lawyer with Janofsky and Walker LLP and former chief of spectrum management at the FCC, agreed with Calabrese in the value of a commons model of spectrum use, saying unlicensed wireless spectrum can give the public the best benefit in many cases. "Why is unlicensed being talked about today?" he asked. "Because it gets needed services to the public cheaper and more efficiently."

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