Legislation that would lead to better understanding of spectrum allocation takes first step in Congress

Two bills call for a national inventory of radio spectrum as a first step toward meeting the growing demand for bandwidth for mobile communications and computing devices.

A House subcommittee last week passed two bills intended to speed the availability of radio spectrum for commercial services.

The Spectrum Relocation Improvement Act (H.R. 3019) and the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act (H.R. 3125) were passed to the full House Energy and Commerce Committee on Jan. 21 by the Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee.

“As more and more Americans use data-intensive smart phones and as services like mobile video emerge, the demand for spectrum to support these applications and devices will grow dramatically,” subcommittee chairman Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said in a prepared opening statement. “Additional spectrum for commercial wireless services will be needed and it will be needed soon.”

Radio spectrum is a finite resource regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, and before it can be made available for new uses regulators must know how it currently is allotted and used.

“The creation of the inventory is an essential step in making available more spectrum for commercial and wireless services and meeting the extraordinary spectrum demands the nation will soon face,” Boucher said. The inventory would include the identity of users and services in each band and how it is being used.

The FCC is in the process of creating a National Broadband Plan to encourage and enable universal access to high-speed Internet access. This will include plans for using radio spectrum for wireless access, especially in rural areas that are underserved by fixed infrastructure.

Committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), said that “regardless of what the National Broadband Plan says about spectrum policy going forward, whatever policy decisions are made need to start by taking account of existing spectrum uses and allocations.”

Also important in making spectrum available for new uses is relocating current users when spectrum is reallocated. The need for improving this process was highlighted when a piece of spectrum used by government was reallocated and auctioned by the FCC in 2006 to commercial users as the advanced wireless services spectrum.

“While that spectrum was auctioned more than three years ago, the winners of the commercial licenses still do not have full use of the spectrum because it has not been fully cleared of government use,” Boucher said.

The Spectrum Relocation Improvement Act would require agencies using reallocated spectrum to create public transition plans for moving to a new band. Money for the transition would be provided from a Spectrum Relocation Fund, and agencies would generally have to complete the move within a year of money being allocated. To qualify for the money, agencies would have to cooperate with commercial licensees and share the frequencies to the extent practical during the transition. Money from the relocation fund would be allocated within 30 days of the FCC issuing a license after a spectrum auction.

The Inventory Act, which originally required the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to inventory all RF bands from 225 MHz through 10 GHz and to make the results public online. The bill was amended to require an inventory only up to the 3.7 GHz band, but only to the upper end of the spectrum if it is determined that the process would be cost-effective. The amended bill also includes provisions for withholding classified or sensitive national security information and proprietary commercial information.

The inventory would include the services authorized in each band, the licensed users, the activities and missions supported by the users, and information on the percentage of spectrum licensed and the degree of usage broken down geographically.

The inventory would be done within one year of the bill's passage, and FCC and NTIA would report to Congress within two years on their findings with recommendations for reallocation where appropriate.

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