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