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Experts Rethink U.S. Spectrum Policy

Seven years later, policy thinkers reassess U.S. Spectrum policy, through the prism of the National Broadband Plan

By Dennis Jones

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This last June, President Trump offered up two new nominees to fill open vacancies on the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), chaired by Ajit Pai. Trump’s GOP nominee, Brendan Carr, is FCC General Counsel and has previously worked as an aide in Pai’s FCC office, when Pai himself was a GOP commissioner. His Democratic nominee, Jessica Rosenworcel, is another retread from the FCC under Obama’s Chairman’s, Tom Wheeler’s chairmanship. As Trump appears to be re-constituting the Obama FCC (with the crucial exception of the previous Chairman), it might be worth taking a look at a report that came out of last year’s Aspen Institute Roundtable on U.S. spectrum policy, which revisits the National Broadband Plan developed by Obama’s FCC in the first year of his presidency.

It’s important to remember that in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, Congress tasked the FCC to develop a national plan for increasing broadband access, at the precise moment when mobile technology was about to explode. The FCC, in its wisdom, determined that digital technology would only get better and more integrated into the lives of American consumers, which would place significant demands on spectrum. To this end, the FCC made a couple recommendations with lasting implications for U.S. spectrum policy this decade. They are as follows:

  • Creation of a spectrum incentive auction in order to incentivize broadcasters to give up their spectrum use rights to carriers with the end goal of lessening wireless congestion for end-consumers
  • Push for greater license flexibility, including increased spectrum sharing and more spectrum dedicated for unlicensed use

Unforeseen by even the FCC in 2009, the period between 2009 and 2016 would offer an unprecedented upsurge in mobile data use, which would lead to a dramatic reassessment of U.S. spectrum policy. As David Bollier notes in his contribution to the report, these mobile technology trends have changed the priorities policymakers should have when considering U.S. spectrum policy (in the Trump era). Specifically, the report singles out two focus areas:

  • Reallocating spectrum from inefficient uses to urgent, innovative uses, as the U.S. spectrum policy goal of merely shifting spectrum from broadcasters to carriers was deemed inadequate in light of much higher spectrum needs
  • Dealing with the rise of new technologies, like IoT, autonomous vehicle and others that postdate the National Broadband Plan’s adoption

To some extent these focus areas work in mutual antagonism. For instance, another report contributor, John Leibovitz, argues that the very rise of disruptive, emerging technologies itself points up the limitations of a unitary broadband policy framework. Nevertheless, to successfully promote abundant bandwidth (which means limiting inefficient uses of spectrum) would appear to require new interventions in U.S. spectrum policy.

Where hot button issues like the rise of 5G and the drive for improved cybersecurity standards in wireless figure in the future of U.S. spectrum policy needs to be tackled in another post. Stay tuned.