Senate bill calls for “inventory of airwaves” to identify spectrum for more broadband, advanced communications use

With several trillion dollars’ worth of bills stacking up on the kitchen table, the Senate is thinking about searching for quarters under the sofa cushions.

When times get tough around the household, what’s a tried and true way of generating some quick cash? A yard sale, of course. So in these dire economic times, some Senators have proposed – in S. 649, a bill introduced on March 19 – that Congress get ready for a Federal spectrum yard sale by making a list of all the spectrum controlled by NTIA and the FCC.   (The Senators in question are former presidential wannabe John Kerry and co-sponsors Olympia Snowe, Roger Wicker and Bill Nelson.)

After all, the public picked up $20 billion in pin money from the 700 MHz auction. Maybe lightning can strike twice.

In fairness to the bill’s sponsors, their goal supposedly is to assure that we will all be able to find “additional spectrum” to “meet the growing demands and needs of consumers and businesses alike.”   The bill’s sponsors seem particularly interested in opening up space for more broadband and advanced communications services. But in her statement in the Congressional Record, Snowe correctly observed that “there is no new spectrum to allocate, only redistribute”, which would seem to put the kibosh on the notion of finding “additional” spectrum. So it appears that the sponsors contemplate that spectrum already in use is going to be changing hands – a process which has in the recent past tended to result in payments to the guv’mint.

The bill calls for a comprehensive and accurate inventory of the spectrum – “what is out there and how it is being used”, in Snowe’s words. The review would include only the spectrum between 300 megahertz and 3.5 gigahertz, a swatch that encompasses, among other uses, UHF Television, Amateur radio, DBS, unlicensed spectrum for cordless phones and wireless networks, and some restricted military uses. Details to be compiled: how many licenses are assigned to each band of spectrum; the number and types of devices in use; the deployed infrastructure supporting the use of the spectrum; any unlicensed use of the spectrum; and contour maps illustrating signal coverage and strength.

The FCC and NTIA would be stuck with the nitty-gritty job of actually preparing the inventory. The results would be posted to a centralized website or portal.

The inventory would cover both federal and non-federal licensees, except – and this is a big “except” – where disclosure would jeopardize national security. Of the spectrum covered by the bill, nearly 40% is set aside for exclusive use by the Government. Historically, the Government – in particular the Pentagon – has been loath to give back spectrum, or even cooperate with shared use of the spectrum.

(Skeptical about the Pentagon not playing well with others? Check out the 5 GHz U-NII proceeding.  Unlicensed devices were permitted to operate in certain portions of the spectrum used by the military, so long as the unlicensed devices could sense and avoid military uses of the spectrum. But certification procedures essential for the development of those devices were delayed for years. Why the delay? Apparently the Pentagon didn’t want to disclose how or where its use of the spectrum was occurring – which made it pretty much impossible for the private sector to develop and certify devices that could sense and avoid such use.)

So while the goals of the bill are laudable, its ultimate success may depend to a considerable degree on how willing the Government will be to itemize its own use of the spectrum for public review.

If the bill is enacted somewhere down the line, the FCC and NTIA will have 180 days to wrap things up. Presumably the bill’s sponsors figure that, with the completion of the DTV transition, the Commission will have boatloads of free time on its hands. Last year NTIA completed a Spectrum Review, so that might be a good place to start.

But don’t start googling now for the final inventory. The bill has a ways to go: approval by committee, passage by the Senate, passage by the House, etc., etc. And since it does not provide for any actual and (relatively) immediate revenue generation, it’s possible that it will be backburnered for the time being. We will keep our eyes out and let you know as developments warrant.