Congress considers inventory of spectrum use in America

A new bill before Congress calls on the NTIA and FCC to inventory the spectrum use in America. Previous work on this by the likes of the New America Foundation found that the vast majority of US broadcast spectrum was sitting fallow -- either squatted on by members of the National Association of Broadcasters (who get their spectrum for free but are theoretically required to put programming in it and use it in the public interest) or reserved from allocation to keep from interfering with licensed users (many of whom were not using their spectrum at all).

Three tiny slices of open spectrum, at 900Mhz, 2.5Ghz and 5.7Ghz, have created a massive economic and technological revolution through WiFi and other unlicensed uses of the public airwaves. The potential for new economic and technological gains from more open spectrum is unimaginable. Getting that spectrum into use is damned good policy, and long overdue.

My only concern is that the FCC will look for short-term cash gains by auctioning off all or most of the fallow spectrum for exclusive use, as has been done with 3G licenses. But this short-sighted approach trades the immediate gains from an auction for the perpetual income stream that arises from the commerce and activity that's enabled by open spectrum. Think, for example, of the total economic benefits that the nation and the world have derived from WiFi -- from cards and base-stations to hotspots to all the gains in efficiency and new opportunities created by wireless networking, and compare this to the paltry sums extracted by a few phone companies selling crippled, metered, filtered 3G network access.

The bill, entitled the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act, was introduced last week by John Kerry (D-MA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Roger Wicker (R-MS). It amends part of the Communications Act by adding a requirement for a national survey of what's being broadcast into our radio airwaves. The survey will cover everything from 200MHz to 3.5GHz, and will be run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission, with input as needed from the Office of Science and Technology.
New bill calls for inventory of US spectrum


  1. I wonder what effect, if any, this will have on the bands currently in the Amateur Radio service.

    I do find it rather sickening, though, that companies were granted licenses and then just sit on them, preventing anyone else from being able to get them.

  2. It’s great that the inventory is happening. To get good long-term planning, though, will take an equally ambitious, well-researched and -documented pitch on the benefits of the economic benefits Cory mentions.

    We here get easily excited about the possibilities of good spectrum use, but people in Congress will need to be spared the fun techie stuff and given clear number$ that serve their interests, ones they can then sell to constituents from Butte to Baltimore.

  3. Very true Ted, but unfortunately technology rarely works that way, which is why it tends to be so poorly managed and legislated.

    The problem is that we can’t predict innovations. If a group is tasked with divying up the spectrum in the way most beneficial to its constituents, it can only do so by considering current technologies. The advantage of open spectrum is that it allows room for new innovations, but since we can’t predict when these innovations will occur or what their value will be, we can’t compare them to existing options.

    Which is why we need more than an economic decision here. Rather than the usual method of auctioning the entire spectrum to the highest bidder, a policy needs to be put in place to leave open bands in all areas of the spectrum. For example, every time a new band is partitioned off, we leave 5 or 10% of it unlicensed. Or we could dedicate entire bands like we used to (27MHz, 900MHz, 2.4GHz). Then the decision comes down to how many, how often, and how large, as a matter of balancing the need for open spectrum with the reliability and profitability of licensed spectrum.

    Primarily, it all starts by dropping the assumption that all spectrum should be licensed.

  4. @#1: It reminds me an awful lot of cybersquatting, except spectrum is much more limited, precious, and provides much more value when used.

    I’m sure the beancounters’ answer would be to increase the cost of licensing (to discourage people needlessly holding on to spectrum), but that also raises the bar for anybody else who might be able to make use of that spectrum.

    What we really need is a “use it or lose it” system. This would increase the cost to anybody wishing to hold it (since they would need to have at least a few transmitters to argue that they are using it), while not increasing the cost for those who are honestly using it (since they would already have transmitters).

  5. The mass of sheer wrongness in the “present” planetary usage of RF spectrum is literally “Barking Mad” It’s akin to that old parable about the “Dog in the manger” except where it gets worse. Here’s my most condensed overview of why.

    There are more than a few intrinsic physical constants affecting antenna science. Think of the cell phone “hidden antenna” performance degradations. Then we have the interactive complexities lumped together as “Propagation Factors” Which include penetration of objects and/or people by the frequencies in question. Also part of propagation is coverage area per power unit. Balancing all those factors against the Day/Night variables in propagation as a whole makes a rather not trivial exercise out of frequency allotments for maximum intelligent utility. Some existing assignments were by legacy inheritances from older usages. Or quirks of tech advance making one chunk or another commercially viable before tech advances changed all the rules. Which last factor is what caused the UHF TV spectrum’s becoming “more valuable” for another set of uses.

    Thus merely having “one nation” audit it’s spectrum usage is potentially Not Good Enough.

    Let’s leave it an an exercise for my betters to explain WHICH spectrum ranges “should” be assigned to which services and more importantly why. The most intriguing to me single project for sheer world changing dare I pun-power is literally that. Powersats need some spectrum for both tight beam and less dense “broadcast” power uses. The sadly scary fact is we may lose the tech base to *EVER* build Powersats. Which would be a cosmic irony indeed. As a technology which could decimate combustion energy’s grip on humanity might remain stillborn by energy cost issues.

  6. I own some Sennheiser wireless broadcast gear and this whole spectrum thing really sucks.

    The FCC fucked themselves by letting us (broadcasters) use the spectrum for free, and now comes along deep pockets Google & Microsoft asking to buy it all up. So far, I think the little guy is winning. But that could all change, and then we’ve got worthless gear.

  7. Based on history, there is a good probability that this will lead to more improper allocation/selling of spectrum. But its not for sure. There are people now in the FCC and advising that _SHOULD_ no better.

    The White space efforts have been in the right direction (using technology to do realtime allocation of unused slices of spectrum based on local conditions).

    If they do start auctioning off spectrum, then we’re screwed, but if they come up with meta-rules for dynamically utilizing local spectrum then we’re going in the right direction.

  8. Computer applications using wireless is wonderful, however the bottom line is that wireless can not beat the capabilities of a wire, or more specifically a fiber optic cable. Meaning, we should not gut the spectrum for server wireless networking needs instead of doing what we should be doing – installing fiber optic everywhere.

Comments are closed.