Broadcasters will not be forced to surrender spectrum for Broadband Plan

President Obama signed a presidential memorandum last week that fast-tracks the public auction of about 500MHz of spectrum that is now controlled by the federal government and private companies. The spectrum, which could come from broadcasters if they choose to give it up, will be used for wireless broadband communications.

The president wants to nearly double the wireless communications spectrum available for commercial use over the next 10 years. His effort is due to expansion of audio and video use of wireless smart phones, like Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android.

“The Internet, as vital infrastructure, has become central to the daily economic life of almost every American by creating unprecedented opportunities for small businesses and individual entrepreneurs,” the president said in the memorandum. “We are now beginning the next transformation in information technology: the wireless broadband revolution.”

In signing the memorandum, the president embraced recommendations made by the FCC in its National Broadband Plan, which was released in March and encourages the expansion of high-speed wireless broadband services. Some parts of the plan will require congressional approval.

The government will seek some of the spectrum from television broadcast companies, who will be asked to voluntarily give up the spectrum in exchange for part of the proceeds from the auction. About 45 percent of the spectrum will come from federal government agencies that will be asked to give up allocations that they are not using or could share.

The president directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to identify federally controlled communications bands that can be made available within five years for exclusive or shared use by commercial companies. Negotiations have been continuing between the White House and federal departments including Defense, Justice, State, Treasury and Energy, which use dedicated government spectrum for official and classified communications.

Congress will need to approve the FCC’s use of incentive auctions of spectrum that is already allocated to private companies, including broadcasters. Those auctions would pay broadcasters to give up unused portions of the spectrum that they license from the federal government, which would then be licensed to or shared with wireless companies.

Some broadcasters, fearful that the government’s plan is not voluntary, have opposed the spectrum allocation recommendations. Dennis Wharton, an executive vice president at the NAB, said that while expanding broadband is important, it should not be done at the expense of broadcasting. “We appreciate the FCC assurances that further reclamation of broadcast television spectrum will be completely voluntary,” Wharton said.

With the recent conversion of analog broadcast signals to digital, broadcasters returned 108MHz of spectrum to the government for auction. Some of the wireless companies that bought that spectrum have not developed all of it, leaving broadcasters wary of giving up more of their holdings to companies that might simply warehouse it.