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Airwaves: Measure First, Reallocate Second

Shuffling spectrum licenses is no small task. Current usage of radio frequency allocations should be measured before reallocation is considered, and broadcast is not incompatible with a national wireless broadband network. Such were the messages witnesses delivered at a hearing this week of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

“Broadcasting and broadband are not ‘either/or’ propositions as some have suggested; that’s a false choice,” NAB chief and former Senator Gordon Smith told members of Congress.

The hearing focused on two bills. H.R. 3125 would require the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to catalog the usages of spectrum between 225 MHz and 10 GHz, down to providing an estimate of how many repeaters, transmitters and end users there are in a given frequency. H.R. 3019 is the “Spectrum Relocation Improvement Act of 2009,” providing a reimbursement framework for incumbent licensees who may be bumped off their spectrum allocation in a reshuffle.

Thomas Stroup, CEO of Shared Spectrum Co. in Vienna, Va., suggested doing the inventory before deciding to move incumbents. He said he was involved in a previous reallocation process that took several years.

One example of the process is the 2GHz relocation, in which broadcast auxiliary operations were squeezed into fewer channel on slightly higher frequencies. It proved more complicated than originally anticipated. That relocation is two-and-a-half years past the initial deadline. The extended deadline is now February of 2010, but insiders say another extension will probably be necessary.

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) asked if a paper inventory would take too long. Stroup said the National Science Foundation already had a lot of data. Michael Calabrese of the New America Foundation suggested building on the white space data base, and perhaps employed a method now used by British regulator Ofcom, which has outfitted government fleet vehicles with receivers to collect information on spectrum use.

The focus on spectrum use has intensified since the Obama Administration charged the FCC with developing a nationwide wireless broadband network. The commission must present its plan by February. FCC officials started floating the idea of using TV spectrum for broadband in the fall. Several interested parties have glommed onto the notion, from academics to lobbyists to economists, who say broadband is a more efficient use of the spectrum currently dedicated to delivery TV signals. One such proponent is Stuart Benjamin, a Duke University professor recently appointed the FCC’s new “Scholar in Residence.” Benjamin published a paper suggesting--somewhat tongue-in-cheek--that broadcasters be regulated out of business.

Rep. Greg Waldon (R-Ore.) was appalled at the idea. “What’s this guy doing at the FCC?” he said. “If we follow Benjamin’s suggestion, aren’t we just throwing $2 billion into a paper shredder?” Two billion dollars being the fed’s investment in preparing voters for the DTV transition. The NAB’s Smith told Waldon that his phone’s been ringing off the hook since Benjamin’s paper came to light.

Just how much spectrum is necessary for nationwide broadband is not clear. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) pressed the point, asking Steve Largent of The Wireless Association if the industry had done its own usage studies. Largent replied that the U.S. wireless spectrum is used more efficiently than anywhere else. Dingell said he’d take that to mean there were no usage studies available.

“There is enough spectrum for now, but you’ll need more spectrum 10 years from now, is that correct?” Dingell asked.

Largent replied that the wireless industry did indeed have sufficient spectrum for the time being, “but will need more sooner than 10 years.” Dingell also asked each witness if the bills being discussed supported a national broadband plan. Only Dr. Ray Johnson from Lockheed Martin said they did not. He was not asked to explain.

Lawmakers asked about alternatives to reallocation, such as dynamic or simultaneous spectrum sharing and advanced compression technologies. Dale Hatfield, adjunct professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder said compression is unlikely to resolve the growing demand for spectrum. He leaned toward both sharing and reallocation.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) asked what percentage of demand could be satisfied by dynamic spectrum sharing--where devices sense when allocated bandwidth is not being used. Hatfield said it would be a “significant help.”

Stroup from Shared Spectrum said the military is already using dynamic spectrum-sharing technology, and that more advanced devices were being developed at Lockheed Martin.

“Lockheed was testing simultaneous sharing of multiple users,” he said, referring to technology that allows simultaneous, differentiated uses of the same frequencies. He said initial licensing agreements covered using it commercially within TV white spaces in about 18 months time.

Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) went off-topic for a while, asking Smith about the Comcast-NBCU joint venture. Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher of Virginia said there would be separate hearings on the deal.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) brought up mobile DTV. He asked the witnesses if people really wanted to watch a handful of channels on a fixed schedule. Just as Largent was answering in the affirmative, Doyle received a text from someone saying they wanted to see the Seahawks and the Steelers play in real time.

Hatfield, the Boulder professor, seized on the example, saying it defined the crux of allocating communications spectrum. If more people want to watch the same thing simultaneously, the broadcast approach is more efficient, he said. If they want to watch individual content on their own time, wireless broadband is more efficient.

The hearing concluded without a vote on either bill.