President Obama urges broadcasters to relinquish spectrum

According to Nielsen forecasts, by the end of 2011, one in every two Americans will own a smart phone. With this continuing growth comes a perceived need for more spectrum, which led President Barack Obama to again endorse incentive auctions to move broadcasters off their government-owned airwaves, in addition to their relinquishment of 108MHz to emergency responders as part of the transition from analog to DTV.

To illustrate the explosive growth in the use of mobile bandwidth, Nielsen said that in 2008, only one in 10 Americans had a smart phone. The new growth over three years means that for the first time in the United States, there will be more smart phones than standard phones in use.

Obama, in a speech last week at North Michigan University in Marquette, drew a historical picture of the need for broadband in the United States. He spoke of the difficulty Americans had building early railroads, the first telegraph, the rural electrification system and the Interstate Highway System.

“These achievements, none of them just happened. We chose to do them. We chose to do big things,” the president said. “And every American benefited not just from new conveniences, not just from the jobs created by laying down new lines or tracks or pavement. We benefited from new economic growth from the scores of new businesses that opened near each town’s new train station, new power lines or new off-ramp.”

In the 21st century, Obama said, a modern communications network is essential to the country’s growth in a global economy.

“Today, more than 90 percent of homes in South Korea subscribe to high-speed broadband,” he said. “Meanwhile, in America, the nation that created the Internet, only 65 percent of households can say the same. When it comes to high-speed Internet, the lights are still off in one-third of our households. For millions of Americans, the railway hasn’t come yet.”

The White House said the president wants to “voluntarily” move broadcasters off some of their spectrum as part of his recently announced National Wireless Initiative, the goal of which is to expand wireless broadband to 98 percent of Americans within five years. Not so coincidentally, that’s the same timetable for pushing broadcasters to give up as much as 120MHz of spectrum to meet the previously stated overall goal to free up 500MHz for the National Broadband Plan.

Obama said the spectrum shortage needs to be addressed by a combination of more efficient use and encouraging current users, broadcasters being prime candidates, to give up some real estate.

Jason Furman, the deputy director of the National Economic Council, briefed reporters on the president’s speech. He did not offer an amount for how much the White House was expecting to have to compensate broadcasters or other commercial users for giving up spectrum. That, he said, would depend on how the auctions were structured and how much each broadcaster was willing to take for giving up their spectrum. Furman added, however, that it reflects a “give or take” division of the proceeds between federal and commercial users.

In any event, Obama’s speech increased the pressure on the nation’s broadcasters to vacate spectrum. NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said the organization is not against the president’s plan, assuming that it’s really voluntary.

“We will work to ensure that incentive auctions remain truly voluntary, and that broadcasters who don't volunteer to return spectrum, and the millions of viewers that we serve, are held harmless," Wharton said.

Free Press, a national digital consumer rights group, was not happy with much of the president’s plan.
“We are concerned that the public interest is being overlooked in this proposal to sell more of our public airwaves to wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon,” said Derek Turner, Free Press’s research director. “These industry giants are already building out their networks and expanding coverage, and they don't need a handout from the federal government to achieve the president's goals."

Turner criticized the plan for the absence of policies to promote adoption. According to the FCC’s own data, he said, 98 percent of households in the United States already have access to wireless broadband service, while less than one-third subscribe to it.