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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to Take Action on Wireless Spectrum

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First Posted: Mar 25, 2014 08:00 PM EDT
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(Screenshot: C-Span)

The Federal Communications Commission announced it's planning on moving forward with a proposal to experiment with wireless spectrum -- the limited resource that increasing mobile internet use has made even more precious.

According to Computer World, the FCC's Chairman, Tom Wheeler, will release a plan soon to implement wireless spectrum sharing ideas recommended by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST. The council recommended the experimental spectrum sharing plans in 2012, but until now, the FCC had yet to act on them.

PCAST's plan, which was laid out in a July 2012 report, aims to enable "multiple users to share spectrum, under a wide range of conditions, without infringing on each other's services."

The report is one recommendation out of a long-ranging discussion on how to leverage new technologies and commercial and government arrangements to free up wireless bandwidth, since demand for wireless internet has skyrocketed now that smartphones and other always-connected devices are common. Wireless, or radio, spectrum is a limited resource due to the physically limited range of wavelengths available for various uses, with certain frequencies regulated by the government for radio and television broadcasts, mobile communications and data, radar, and communications for emergency services, among others.

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The most recent proposal by Wheeler would designate the 3.5GHz band as an "innovation band" for experimentation with spectrum sharing, in order to get the most use out the band dedicated previously to radar systems. Wheeler said, in an address to a recent conference on spectrum regulations at the Brookings Institute, that the 3.5GHz wireless band could be shared using three tiers of priority, with government agencies and licensed commercial users getting precedence, but then authorized, shared, general use after that. Those users could "include a wide range of residential, business, and others," said the FCC's notice. That could mean better wireless internet coverage and speeds, depending on the location.

Wheeler called on the new band of spectrum to be regulated with a "highly flexible band plan," including flexible licensing and auction systems, to avoid having to separate that big of spectrum into strictly regulated sub-bands. Wheeler, who formerly was a lobbyist for cable and wireless interests, is emphasizing free market apparatuses to help sort out the spectrum allocation and sharing -- something that he hopes will apply to adjustments in wireless reallocation in the future. Especially for a round of "incentive auctions" scheduled for 2015, where TV broadcasters will be able to auction off some of the spectrum they currently hold. "If it is possible to marry the economics of demand with the economics of current spectrum holders, it should be possible, then to allow market forces to determine the highest and best use of all spectrum," said Wheeler.

You may remember the switch most TV broadcasters made from bandwidth-inefficient analogue to digital in 2009. As part of that switch, any remaining analogue broadcasts will be shut off by September of 2015. TV stations are wary about auctioning and sharing the spectrum they hold (but which has been made available since switching to digital) but Wheeler promoted the incentive auction as advantageous for broadcasters. "The auction presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for broadcasters... seldom have I seen such a risk-free opportunity as that which is presented to the broadcasters by the incentive auction." 

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