When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its National Broadband Plan (NBP) back in March, it focused very heavily on making 500 MHz of new spectrum available for broadband ove the next ten years. The Obama Administration endorsed this goal back in May, and ordered the relevant federal agency — Department of Commerce National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) — to do a study on how to make this happen on the Federal side.
The NTIA just released its report. I can summarize its basic conclusions as follows: “getting 500 MHz of spectrum for broadband over the next ten years is going to be really hard.” On the plus side, the NTIA report actually does the brave thing of discussing in a realistic way what it will take to get 500 MHz available for broadband, although in a nod to political realities NTIA does not actually venture an opinion on how to prioritize these steps or how to proceed forward. While none of the recommendations should come as a surprise to anyone who follows spectrum policy, it rather dashes the hope of anyone who thinks that we can rely on a single method — such as auctions — to get there.
Why? Well, turns out the federal government is not sitting on a boatload of unused spectrum. At best, there are federal users that — with investment of money and significant planning — could migrate over time to more efficient technologies and/or uses. What federal spectrum that is available in the short term will recquire geographic “exclusion zones” to protect existing federal operations and, by and large, is not in particularly “good” spectrum for delivering mobile broadband in ways that existing wireless carriers could easily (relatively speaking) integrate into their operations. So even if we have an auction, it won’t raise squindoodles of money.
A lot of the recommendations in the report were made by us here at PK back in June at our Spectrum Reform Event or in previous filings (like this one here). For example, NTIA proposes making it easier for federal agencies to lease spectrum (a subject near and dear to my heart), additional funds and resources for federal agencies to do spectrum planning, and enhance spectrum sharing and spectrum reuse. On the non-commercial side, the Report endorses the FCC’s proposal to hold incentive auctions — although NTIA recommends givign general incentive auction authority and not simply limiting it to broadcasters. Personally, I’m not sure how incentive auctions would work in most outstanding bands (e.g., pager licenses?), but I guess you could bribe the WCS guys to walk away quietly instead of have them scream bloody murder when they miss their build out obligations again.
More important that these substantive recommendations, however, is that NTIA speels out the criteria they will use when evaluating bands for clear-n-auction or some sort of mixed use. Most of these are fairly common sense: amount of useable bandwidth, industry interest, potential revenue (NTIA is required to consider revenue, even though the FCC is prohibited from considering revenue). Some are hard to quantify but extremely important (e.g., “indirect value to the economy”). And, as NTIA observes, all of this will require coordination with the FCC and other federal agencies. This provides us with a way forward, albeit a very general one that will require further discussion and refinement.
As I say, this really doesn’t surprise anyone who follows spectrum policy, even if it disappoints those in the industry who don’t want to face up to the reality. Hence CTIA‘s press statement that they will continue to “work to ensure Federal policymakers understand, and focus on,” finding more yummy spectrum below 3 GHz to auction. While I would be the last to tell CTIA how to spend its resources, lobbying for stuff that doesn’t exist because you really want it does not strike me as a terribly useful way to spend your members’ money. It is time to accept the reality that no one- not federal users, not broadcasters, not anyone else — is hiding some vast amount of clean spectrum in the sweet spot between 500 MHz and 3 GHz that will magically solve all our capacity problems with another auction. Finding new spectrum is hard. Making available spectrum work for everyone who needs it, and who will need it in the future, will take serious cooperation and efort. The sooner everyone gives up on the dream that Federal users sit on some spectrum El Dorado they can be pressured to open for auction, the sooner we can actually start addressing our future spectrum needs.