The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Julius Genachowski, has finally put some flesh on the bare bones of the US National Broadband Plan (NBP). Under its provisions "at least" 500 MHz of additional spectrum is to be made available by 2020. It will be effected by taking spectrum from TV broadcasters. Martyn Warwick reports.
Given that bandwidth is a finite and increasingly scarce resource, Mr. Genachowski intends to "encourage" US broadcasters to hand over some of what they hold to the powers that be - by creating a sort of futures market for spectrum.
The FCC chairman is proposing a "Mobile Futures Auction" via which organisations such as broadcasters will be able "voluntarily to relinquish" bandwidth in return for a share in proceeds raised by government auctions of those airwaves to wireless mobile operators.
As is the case in other parts of the world, the US mobile broadband sector is becoming a victim of its own success. The late blossoming of 3G has led to the proliferation of smartphones and the massive uptake of the data-intensive services and applications they enable is putting increasing strain on network capabilities and resilience. Things could get considerably worse with 4G.
As Mr. Genachowski puts it, "Although the potential of mobile broadband is limitless, its oxygen supply is not. Spectrum - our airwaves - really is the oxygen of mobile broadband service. Without sufficient spectrum, we will starve mobile broadband of the nourishment it needs to thrive."
The FCC announcement comes not a moment too soon. Under the terms of the Obama regime's economic stimulus bills, the Commission has been tasked with ensuring that "affordable, high-speed Internet connections" will be available to all Americans (including those in the rural US) by 2020 at the latest and the agency has to present its plan for this to the Congress by March this year.
The FCC's intent is to free-up 500MHz of wireless bandwidth over the next 10 years that will be added to the 500MHz the US wireless industry still has in reserve. The use of spectrum presently allocated to TV spectrum is regarded as the ideal solution because it is generally agreed that some frequencies are not being used to their maximum efficiency even though, as the FCC chairman says they conceal "billions of dollars worth of unlocked value."
Now is the best time in history to take bandwidth away from broadcasters.
In the US more and more consumers are opting for subscription TV services over satellite and cable and the industry is now using a lot of bandwidth to serve a dwindling number of consumers (now less than 10 per cent of the US population), who still rely solely on free-to-air, over-the-ether TV signals.
Nonetheless, and as might be expected the FCC plan has the broadcast industry foaming at the mouth. Dennis Wharton, evp of the National Association of Broadcasters in the US says, "As a one-to-many transmission medium, broadcasters are ready to make the case that we are far and away the most efficient users of spectrum in today's communications marketplace. We look forward to working with policymakers to help expand the rollout of broadband without threatening the future of free and local television."
In riposte, the FCC says the broadcasters concerns are baseless because the"Mobile Future Auction" will be purely voluntary for them and, in any event, would allow them to retain sufficient spectrum to continue providing free-to-air signals.
There are other aspects to the FCC's plan. For instance it also recommends the use of unlicensed spectrum and changes to the Universal Service Fund (USF) - the legislative device via which the subsidisation telephony and Internet access services in poor and rural areas of the US is effected - to help with the costs of wireless networks.
The proposal will also allow other companies with wireless spectrum, such as mobile satellite service providers, to use the spectrum they already hold either to deliver broadband or transfer some of the bandwidth to other users.
The main trade organisation for the US cellular telephony community, the CTIA, has issued a statement in favour of the FCC's initiative saying the proposals are as "essential to the wireless industry's ability to continue to provide and expand Americans' access to broadband anywhere and anytime."
On the other hand the TV broadcasters see the FCC's propsal as a thinly-disguised civilian version of the sergeant-major's request, "I want three volunteers. You, you and you."
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