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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Spectrum Policy in the Age of Broadband: Issues for Congress

Linda K. Moore
Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

The convergence of wireless telecommunications technology with the Internet Protocol (IP) 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, smart grids, medicine and public health, intelligent transportation systems, 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. 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. A challenge for Congress is to provide decisive policies in an environment where there are many choices but little consensus.

Among the spectrum policy initiatives that have been proposed in Congress in recent years are: allocating more spectrum for unlicensed use; auctioning airwaves currently allocated for federal use; and devising new fees on spectrum use, notably those managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The National Broadband Plan (NBP), a report on broadband policy mandated by Congress, has provided descriptions of perceived spectrum policy issues to be addressed by a combination of regulatory changes and the development of new policies at the FCC.

Following up on recommendations in the NBP and guidance from the Administration, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in October 2010 issued a plan to make additional spectrum available for wireless broadband. The NTIA advises the Administration on spectrum policy as well as other matters and is responsible for managing federal spectrum resources. The FCC is responsible for the management of commercial spectrum and other non-federal spectrum resources. Many of the initiatives discussed in FCC and NTIA plans would require close cooperation between the two agencies.

The FCC and the NTIA have requested assistance from Congress to carry out their recommendations. For example, both have requested that the Communications Act of 1934 be amended to permit incentive auctions. Such authority would enable spectrum license-holders to return spectrum for auction, with the expectation of receiving part of the proceeds as partial compensation for its market value and to cover the costs associated with relinquishing the asset. Although most spectrum license auction revenues are deposited as general funds, Congress has passed laws, such as the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act, that permit the proceeds to be used for other purposes.

Date of Report: January 7, 2011
Number of Pages: 34
Order Number: R40674
Price: $29.95

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