FCC Hints at Incentive Auction Aims, Freeing Wireless for Next-Generation Data and WiFi
The Federal Communications Commission just divulged some of their plans to free up wireless spectrum in the U.S. If successful, the FCC's plan will allow for more open airwaves that could lead to better WiFi, Bluetooth, and wireless broadband innovation, but setting it up is not an easy task.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wrote a blog post on Friday giving an overview of the upcoming "Incentive Auction," the agency's device to reorganize allocation of wireless spectrum for the 21st century.
Wireless spectrum is the physically-limited resource of radio airwaves that carry TV, cellular data, WiFi signals and more, and the FCC plans to use the unprecedented Incentive Auction to reallocate what channels different industries use, as well as to free up some airwaves for unlicensed, innovation-driven uses, like next-generation WiFi and/or better interconnectivity between the coming "internet of things."
"Getting the Incentive Auction right will revolutionize how spectrum is allocated," said Wheeler in his post. "By marrying the economics of demand (think wireless providers) with the economics of current spectrum holders (think television broadcasters), the Incentive Auction will allow market forces to determine the highest and best use of spectrum."
The auction, slated for the middle of 2015, is the final phase of the spectrum reallocation and digital shift that began when TV broadcasters switched from radio-hogging analogue to more efficient digital signals late last decade. But this final phase is incredibly complex and not guaranteed to work.
As GigaOm helpfully explains, the Incentive Auction requires TV broadcasters to "reverse auction" and relinquish their spectrum usage rights to mobile broadband providers, who will participate in a "forward auction" for 4G licenses, while at the same time, the UHF TV band (think the "upper TV channels" pre-digital) will be reconfigured to open up for new uses.
Check out GigaOm for a fuller explanation.
The Incentive Auction is already controversial, with TV broadcasters accusing Wheeler of treating them like "Dinosaurs" and AT&T hinting that it may not participate at all, if the FCC places too many restrictions on what it can buy.
But if it's successful, one of the most complicated reallocation of wireless will likely free up between 12 and 20 megahertz worth of spectrum for unlicensed, free use. That could lead to less congested WiFi, better quality data, and more connectivity in ways that probably haven't been invented yet.
Freeing up spectrum below 1 Ghz -- which Wheeler says "has physical properties that increase the reach of mobile networks over long distances" -- will also increase the quality and coverage of voice and data over wireless networks. According to Wheeler, "access to a sufficient amount of low-band spectrum is a threshold requirement for extending and improving service in both rural and urban areas," and he argues that, with more Americans only connected through wireless service, no one, for example, should "run the risk of being unable to place a 911 call from the interior of a building just because their wireless company has the wrong spectrum."
Before any of this happens though, the FCC has a lot of competing interests to please -- not only the TV broadcasters and the two wireless megacarriers Verizon and AT&T, but Sprint and T-Mobile, which may complicate things further if the two's merger is approved before mid-2015.
Add in the fact that Comcast and Time Warner Cable want to merge, and the FCC's 4 year-old method of regulating net neutrality just got struck down by a federal court and now needs reassessment, and it looks like Tom Wheeler's not going to be getting any sleep for the next year.
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