CTIA, NAB, and the FCC Battle Over Wireless Spectrum Reallocation

The hottest topic in the exhibit halls and roundtables at this year's CTIA show in Orlando, Florida, may be the AT&T merger with T-Mobile USA, but a close second is the growing frustration over the lack of air.

Two powerful industry groups are battling over thin air, otherwise known as transmission frequencies: CTIA and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

Both groups court the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and have historically had its chairman speak at their respective events. Yet, to read the rhetoric around the recent advances in the "voluntary" spectrum re-allocation debate, the current FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, isn't making friends in the NAB-or with certain members of Congress.

NAB contests the requirement for its broadcast member stations to give up frequency, which would be resold to the wireless industry, on the grounds that the broadcasters can do as good a job transmitting video and data as the wireless service providers.

The NAB's current argument: the FCC hasn't completed a thorough review of the spectrum before it begins forced spectrum re-allocation proceedings.

"The FCC statement is a disappointing response to Congress," said Dennis Wharton, spokesperson for NAB, referring to a recent letter the FCC provided stating the spectrum inventory is complete, which NAB disputes.

"Congress is seeking a thorough spectrum inventory," said Wharton.

Genachowski used his time on the CTIA podium to address the issue, claiming that it's one of stifled innovation and economic recovery.

Genachowski claims that the wireless industry will run out of available spectrum within two years.

"We need to free the spectrum up before the crunch hits," he said. "We haven't seen a good response in the healthy debate as to why we shouldn't move forward with voluntary spectrum reallocation."

"Spectrum can be voluntarily released, and the proceeds will be shared with the broadcasters who give up the spectrum," he continued. "Estimates say that $27.8 billion of revenues would come to the U.S. government."

Genachowski did not comment on how much of the proceeds would be given back to the broadcasters who voluntarily release spectrum, nor the question of why the FCC wouldn't allow sale or lease of broadcast spectrum directly between the over-the-air (OTA) broadcasters and wireless service providers.

Instead, he used the threat of stifled innovation-and dropped calls and limited video playback-as a populist appeal for voluntary auctions.

"We're opening up 25 Mhz of broadband in the 2.3 Ghz range, which is also being used in Korea for high-speed mobile broadband," Genachowski stated, "but every day we are not freeing up spectrum impacts our economy, innovation, and our leadership in 4G. I see no reason not to press ahead with voluntary spectrum auctions."

What is less than certain is what happens if not enough OTA broadcasters choose not to voluntarily give up spectrum, a real possibility since many of them are interested in broadcasting data and multiple channels within their own spectrum allocations.

The NAB may have an ally on Capitol Hill, in the form of the new chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

"When I hear voluntary and I hear $27.8 billion and I hear repacking," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-OR, "and then I hear what the FCC chairman said this week, it doesn't sound very voluntary."

For its part, CTIA's executives see NAB as a bit of a spoilsport. "to cover the uptick in video and data consumption. So we are working with the FCC to identify spectrum and push forward with innovations around better spectrum allocation and usage."

Hesse quoted Winston Churchill, who is said to have commented: "The Americans will do the right thing, after trying all other options."

"America has regained innovation and wireless dominance, and we need the government's help to make sure the innovation continues unabated," said Hesse.

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