Last year when Blair Levin first started talking about reclaiming broadcast spectrum for broadband (now known as the “incentive auction” proposal), he made it clear that the FCC needed to reexamine all of its existing spectrum allocations. “Everyone should be worried,” Levin responded to those who accused him of picking on broadcasters. Since then, however, the broadcast bands and federal bands have remained the focus for reallocation and auction.
FCC Commissioner Meredith Baker therefore deserves a big shout out for resuming the conversation about other possible bands, and about more broadly looking at the existing service allocations. Baker told a Law Seminars International conference yesterday that the FCC needs to give its current table of allotments (the table that lays out what frequency bands are allocated to what services) a review. Baker explicitly pointed to the Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) as a service that appeared to have too much spectrum allocated to it based on current use. “A quick look at our spectrum allocation table suggests that we have too much satellite spectrum and not enough terrestrial spectrum,” Baker said. She noted that “taken as a whole, MSS bands have been significantly underused and represent the greatest 4G spectrum opportunity available to the Commission in the short term.” While noting that the FCC had commenced a Notice of Inquiry on how to encourage broadband deployment in the band back in July, Baker explicitly raised the possibility of incentive auctions in the band as a way to encourage 4G and as a way of compensating the public for the use of the public asset, since satellite providers received a good deal of this spectrum for free. (Baker also went on to discuss how the FCC could promote secondary spectrum markets, a subject near and dear to my own heart.)
To be clear, I’m not sure I agree with Commissioner Baker about MSS — particularly as I am not yet sold on the virtues of incentive auctions. (My opinion is that incentive auctions are basically a bribe to licensees. As a pragmatic progressive, I don’t object to a bribe per se, I just want to make sure the public gets its money’s worth.) What I want to applaud Baker for is for reinvigorating the conversation about the table of allotments and whether the current division of frequencies among existing services makes sense. When the FCC made spectrum allocations, it did so based on the best information it had available at the time, and in light of the existing technology and demand. Unsurprisingly, as time has chanegd, some of these decisions need to be revisited.
For example, consider the recent paging service auction, which raised a “staggering” $5 million (not all spectrum auctions are gold mines, although that seems to be a popular belief). While a lot of people still use paging services, believe it or not, there’s a pretty good argument that this is not the “highest, best use” of valuable spectrum and maybe the FCC ought to rethink the band rather than keep running auctions for it, especially now that the “White Spaces” database and architecture allows devices to use any unallocated license areas without interfering with existing licensees. Similarly, maybe it is time to recognize that MSS doesn’t need all the spectrum the FCC initially allocated to it because changes in technology, unanticipated costs and obstacles, and/or changes in consumer demand make such a large allocation unnecessary. OTOH, maybe there are good reasons to leave things as they are, or to modify the rules in a different way — such as to encourage spectrum leasing and secondary markets, or promote unlicensed sharing on a non-interfering basis.
What’s important, and why Commissioner Baker deserves a shout out, is that we need to be willing to reexamine everything and not take the current set of frequency allocations as an immutable law of the universe. Although the Commission has sometimes altered or migrated wireless services in the past, it generally prefers to leave any incumbent licensee alone and try to fit new entrants in or around the service. Many of us hoped the conversation Blair Levin started about repurposing broadcast bands for broadband would start a broader conversation about other allocations as well; that the National Broadband Plan would provide a welcome opportunity to rethink what spectrum allocation policies would suite our modern needs, rather than trying to build a modern wireless ecosystem with allocations that stretch back to the wireless equivalent of pre-Cambrian times. Commissioner Baker deserves praise for reminding everyone that this is a conversation the FCC still needs to have.