rare to get agreement across party lines on Capitol Hill, but that was the case
this morning when it came to radio frequency spectrum. Legislators and
regulators alike agreed that an inventory was in order. The issue arose during
a House subcommittee hearing on oversight of the FCC. The five commissioners
appeared before the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the
Internet. The FCC’s charter to develop a nationwide broadband plan is getting
the most play at the commission, but spectrum is integrally linked, as Chairman
Julius Genachowski noted.
“There is a demand crunch coming,” he said in response to a query from Rep. Joe
Barton (R-Texas) about available spectrum and D block licenses that failed to
attract sufficient bids. “I would welcome passage of the inventory bill. With
respect to the D block, that we can get on the market soon. The challenge of
the public safety component is a problem. The D block comes up often in
connection with our broadband plan.”
The D block refers to a swatch of spectrum in the 700 MHz band, freed up after
the June 12 digital television transition. The FCC designated conditions on D
block to create what it hoped would be a public-private partnership by which
first responders could use the space. It was offered up as a nationwide, singe
license. The unrestricted 700 MHz licenses brought $19 billion; the D block
No second auction has been scheduled for the D block, but Genachowski told
Barton proposals would be put forth “no later than February,” in conjunction
with the FCC’s broadband plan.
A lack of spectrum, vis-à-vis its use by broadcasters for the DTV transition,
was blamed by some for the deaths of first responders during the events of
9/11. Experts countered the premise, noting the disparity in terms, protocols
and the types of radios used by first responders. The perception nonetheless
stuck, prompting hostility toward the broadcast industry, and the creation of
the D block.
Rather than wait for a buyer to step forward for the D block, the U.S.
Department of Homeland Security has begun trials to test multiband radios, Scientific American’s Larry Greenemeier reports.
“Several manufacturers are developing multiband radios, but currently only a
version made by Thales Communications in Clarksburg, Md., meets criteria set by
Homeland Security--that is, the device is roughly the same size and weight as
the radios that police and other responders carry today, and it costs no more
than $5,000, similar to the high-end single-band radios now on the market,” he
Amtrak, Washington, D.C.’s Metro system, the U.S. Olympic Planning Committee
and 11 more agencies tested the Thales radios over the summer; published
results are expected early next year. (See
for Responders: Public Safety Bandwidth Goes Unused.”)
At the FCC oversight hearing, all the commissioners welcomes legislation
directing the agency to conduct a spectrum inventory. Subcommittee Chairman
Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and some colleagues introduced such a bill over the
summer, H.R. 3125, the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act. It would require the FCC
and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to provide
Congress with an annual report on spectrum use and availability.
A similar bill was passed by the Senate Commerce Committee in July. S.649
requires a biennial inventory. It’s been placed on the Senate calendar of
business for an eventual floor vote, according to Govtrack.
While all commissioners were on board for an inventory, some urged
restraint on assumptions about shortages.
“We have a lot of spectrum not built out yet,” Commissioner Robert McDowell
said. “We have the AWF-1 auction from 2006, not online yet. We had the 700 MHz
auction, that’s not built out. Let’s be careful what we want to do... let’s not
micromanage that spectrum.”
He also offered that spectral efficiency doubles every few years with advances
in compression and other communications technology.
McDowell’s Republican colleague, Meredith Attwell Baker, noted the need for
more “efficient, transparent spectrum policy,” but that the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency “spends more money in this area than anyone else.” She
reiterated McDowell’s point about spectrum in the process of being utilized,
“but we need to lay out the steps that come after that.”
More on spectrum legislation:
July 13, 2009: “Boucher Proffers House
Lawmakers in the House of Representatives have rolled out a bill that would
initiate a radio spectrum inventory. The measure would direct the National
Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communication
Commission to do a comprehensive survey of the spectrum. The goal is to update
who and what agencies are using bandwidth, how they’re using it, and where the
gaps are, if any remain. The nation’s airwaves are notoriously crowded, hence
the push in recent years to open up broadcast taboo channels to unlicensed