COMMENTARY

Can spectrum auction prevent the looming bandwidth deficit?

The recent budget deal to allow the auctioning of some broadcast spectrum for wireless Internet service — and help create a national public safety network in the process — is a good step toward avoiding the coming mobile bandwidth crunch. But there’s no guarantee the other shoe will drop.

Congressional negotiators struck what looks, if all goes right, like a win-win-win agreement.

The compromise, approved Feb. 17, will allow the Federal Communications Commission to auction radio frequency spectrum used by TV stations, which could raise up to $25 billion for the government, and a nice chunk of change for the broadcasters. About $15 billion would be used to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. Another $7 billion also would go toward creating a nationwide, interoperable emergency services network that has been sought for a decade.


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Meanwhile, the freed-up spectrum would give wireless Internet providers room on the airwaves to feed the burgeoning mobile beast and avoid a “spectrum deficit” the FCC has said could come as early as 2013.

So: a tax cut, jobless benefits, a public safety network and relief from the slow connections and dropped calls that wireless providers say would result from the bandwidth crunch. Win-win-win.

There’s just one hitch: Broadcasters might not want to give up their licenses to the spectrum.

Although some likely will be willing to sell, “I would be shocked if there's some kind of stampede of broadcasters lining up to turn in their TV licenses," Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters, told Reuters.

For one thing, 46 million people in the United States still get their TV via over-the-air signals. For another, giving up licenses could handcuff their efforts to get into digital mobile TV, beaming broadcasts to smart phones and tablets, which Wharton said many station owners see as the future of broadcasting.

If not enough broadcasters are on board, that $25 billion Congress is hoping to raise could be turn out to be a lot smaller, which, with the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits in place, could strain the federal budget. It would also mean a smaller slice of the spectrum made available to wireless providers, which could strain services. And funds for the public safety network might also hang in the balance.

The FCC and industry have been looking to add spectrum for years, to keep up with the exploding growth of mobile communications, as more and more people take up smart phones and tablets and everyone from businesses to government agencies develops mobile apps.

A recent Cisco report predicted that mobile data traffic will grow sixteenfold between 2011 and 2016, eventually totaling 1.74 exabytes of data per month, a rate equivalent to 4.8 trillion text messages a second. An FCC technical paper released in October 2010 in support of the commission’s National Broadband Plan projected that, without additional spectrum, mobile services would have a "spectrum deficit" of 90 MHz by 2013 and 275 MHz by 2014, which would affect services.

The spectrum is there if the FCC can reclaim it. The National Broadband Plan, launched in March 2010, calls for making 300 MHz of spectrum available by 2015 and 500 MHz available by 2020. The auctions approved by the budget compromise would provide 120 MHz of that, if broadcasters are willing to sell. Other areas of the spectrum targeted for reallocation include the band between 225 MHz and 3.7 GHz, and 90 MHz of mobile satellite service.

The spectrum situation isn’t an all-out crisis. Mobile communications will continue, and providers’ recent cuts to unlimited data plans might even help dampen demand for bandwidth. But a services pinch, at the very least, is coming, and the sooner the FCC can reclaim spectrum, the better.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

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