Spectrum Crisis Amnesia: What Happened in Vegas Stayed in Vegas, Unfortunately

For CNET, I posted a long piece describing a full day at CES's Tech Policy Summit largely devoted to spectrum issues. Conference attendees in several packed sessions heard from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and three of the four other FCC Commissioners (Commissioner Copps was absent due to illness), as well as former Congressman Rick Boucher and industry representatives.

The message was as clear as it is worrisome. The tremendous popularity of wireless broadband, on view in a remarkable range of new devices and gizmos on display at the Vegas Convention Center, is rapidly outpacing the radio frequencies available to handle the data.

The mobile Internet needs more spectrum, and there isn't any to give it. The app revolution is in danger of hitting a hard stop, perhaps as soon as 2015.

As the exclusive manager of America's radio waves, only the FCC can reallocate spectrum. And the good news is that the agency recognizes the crisis as well as its role in solving it. Chairman Genachowski told the audience that spectrum reform will be the agency's top priority for 2011.

Reading the Chairman's prepared comments, however, I was struck by the sense that I'd heard something similar before. Perhaps in the very same room. Perhaps by the very same speaker.

Last year, the Chairman didn't read a prepared statement,but I had taken copious notes. When I read them over, I realized that both the acute crisis and the basic steps the agency plans to avoid it were nearly identical to what Genachowski described as his priority last year. That is, his priority for 2010. Which is now over.

There was no acknowledgment in his comments or in questions from Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro that none of last year's promises had been kept, and indeed, that this year's promises were pretty much a rerun. None of the journalists who covered last year and this year's events seemed to notice either.

In the worst possible sense, what happened in Vegas had stayed in Vegas.

It's not as if the FCC wasn't especially busy in the last twelve months. Shortly after CES, the Commission issued its National Broadband Plan which, among other things, called for an additional 500 Mhz of frequency for mobile Internet to be made available as soon as possible.

But the NBP was never the priority for the FCC last year. And neither was spectrum.

Instead, the agency devoted itself to completing the Open Internet proceeding begun in October of 2009. But on the very day Genachowski spoke at CES last year, oral arguments were taking place in the D.C. Circuit on the Comcast case, which the FCC lost badly in May. Then there was Title II reclassification. Then the "Third Way" proceeding. Then the call for more information on wireless and specialized services. Then the private talks with industry and public interest groups on a compromise. Then the Verizon-Google proposed legislative framework. Then Rep. Henry Waxman's draft legislation. Then the news that the Chairman was calling a vote for the end of December. Then, finally, the Report and Order approved 3-2 on Dec. 21st.

A busy year indeed. But in the process of passing rules whose value is doubtful at best, the National Broadband Plan, spectrum reform, clean up of the Universal Service Fund, and pretty much the rest of the Chairman's agenda received little attention.

One measure of that laser-like focus on net neutrality is that the agency appears not to have even begun preparation of a much-needed inventory of existing licenses and allocations. When Congress failed to pass legislation requiring the inventory, President Obama in June issued directives to NTIA (government allocations) and the FCC (private allocations) to do it anyway.

According to an FCC representative at CES, so far the agency has only gotten as far as redesigning the user interface of its database, to make it possible just to search for a licensee. When I asked how work on the inventory was progressing and whether there was a timetable for completing it, the answer I got was that the agency would be reporting its progress on an on-going basis.

It's hard to see how much progress is going to be made on finding unused or underutilized spectrum, let alone getting it freed up for mobile broadband Internet, when we don't even know who is holding licenses in the first place.

Spectrum reallocation isn't the only hope, of course. Technological improvements in mobile devices and infrastructure can make more efficient use of existing spectrum. Commissioner McDowell, for one, believes that while not the optimal way to solve the crisis, nonetheless anxiety over running out of capacity could inspire creativity and innovation.

But at the same time there's general agreement that current allocations are inefficient, and that government (especially the Department of Defense) and local broadcast television are sitting on a great deal of valuable radio real estate that is simply lying fallow. The spectrum now being used for new 4G services came largely from the successful transition to digital television, but even still, broadcasters have a lot of remaining spectrum that almost none of them are fully using. In the decline of over-the-air television, few are likely to ever make use of it.

The FCC would like to host what it calls "voluntary incentive auctions," in essence to create a market for selling off some or all of that underutilized broadcast spectrum. But the agency doesn't have the authority to do it, and Congress failed to pass Boucher's bill that would have given them that authority.

Now Boucher is a private citizen, and the Republican House is steaming at the FCC over last year's last-minute Open Internet vote.

I hate to sound like a pessimist here, but does anyone have much hope that at next year's CES, we'll hear much about progress in avoiding spectrum seizure? Or even an acknowledgment that the goals set for the last two years haven't been met, and that perhaps it's time to develop a contingency plan?

Well, I haven't been around this block as many times as a lot of policy experts have. So maybe I'm just missing the part about how a problem gets solved just by repeating the description of the problem once a year.