Five FCC commissioners were on Capitol Hill yesterday, being quizzed by House panel members regarding their plans to conduct a major auction to reallocate wireless spectrum for mobile broadband networks.
Several Republican members of the Energy and Commerce Committee's technology subcommittee expressed concern that the FCC would set aside too much of the spectrum in question for guard bands or unlicensed applications, rather than maximizing the auction proceeds through licensed allotments.
The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the FCC could rake in $24.5 billion in proceeds from the auctions, through which television broadcasters would turn over their spectrum licenses in exchange for a portion of the revenue, which would help cover their costs of moving to another band.
While independent economists have projected that the windfall from the auctions could be substantially higher, some lawmakers on Thursday warned that the FCC's focus on unlicensed spectrum could forgo billions of dollars, money that would be used to fund a nationwide communications network for first responders and pay down the debt, among other uses.
"These are big numbers we're talking about," subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said. "These are programs the Congress has already said need to be funded through this auction."
FCC Looks to Mix Licensed vs. Unlicensed
The debate over licensed versus unlicensed uses of spectrum has been an enduring feature of the policy conversation over how to maximize the nation's airwaves at a time when data usage on wireless devices is surging.
Public interest groups and Web firms like Google have made the case that unlicensed spectrum provides a testbed for innovative new technologies, perhaps most notably Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
"Unlicensed spectrum has been an incredible economic success story," says Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). "Innovative services like WiFi and Bluetooth are now ubiquitous parts of our communications system. They came about because of the use of unlicensed spectrum."
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told lawmakers that he intends for the auction to include a mix of licensed and unlicensed spectrum, but stressed that the process is in its early stages and that the commission is still gathering comments from the public that will inform the eventual auction, which it plans to hold in 2014.
At the same time, he made plain his view that unlicensed spectrum is a valuable resource that will figure prominently in the FCC's auction plans.
"It's an extraordinary platform for innovation. It has proven to be that. When it was first done 20 or 30 years ago, it was a theory. Now we know," Genachowski said.
FCC to Target $7 Billion for First Responders
Genachowski also reaffirmed that the FCC intends to channel $7 billion of proceeds from the auction to establish an interoperable communications network for first responders, as directed by the statute that granted the commission the authority to reapportion the spectrum.
Under the law, the FCC is directed to reimburse participating television stations up to $1.75 billion in costs they incur through relocating to a new segment of spectrum.
In addition to the public safety network, the FCC is also expected to contribute $135 million to help states coordinate with their public safety communications facilities. Another $300 million is earmarked for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to conduct research and development in public safety communications technologies, while $115 million would be set aside to advance next-generation 911 service.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.