A searching and fearless spectrum inventory

People like to talk about wireless spectrum as the precious natural resource of the digital economy. It’s valuable because it’s scarce, yet critics charge that it is egregiously mismanaged by the government.

Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, today introduced legislation that would direct the FCC and National Telecommunications Information Administration to conduct an inventory of the spectrum licenses and government allocations to pave the road for more effective use of the airwaves.

“Our public airwaves belong to the American people, and we need to make certain we are putting them to good use in the best interests of those citizens,” Kerry said in a statement.

The Radio Spectrum Inventory Act would give the agencies six months to complete the inventory, which would encompass all spectrum between 300 MHz and 3.5 GHz.

Broadband advocates look to wireless communications as the vehicle for delivering high-speed Internet access to rural areas.

To get a sense of the value of the spectrum, consider last year’s auction, when the FCC sold off a chunk of airwaves in the 700 MHz band, fetching nearly $20 billion from communications companies across the country. Verizon Wireless and AT&T accounted for the lion’s share of the bidding, together spending almost $15 billion to secure spectrum for their 4G wireless rollouts.

Consider also the pointed debate over white spaces, the buffer zones between TV channels that the broadcast lobby fought tooth and nail (citing interference concerns) to keep out of the hands of wireless Internet providers. They lost that battle, and tech giants like Google are eagerly awaiting the innovative new devices and networks that promise to bring a new class of people online.

But much of the spectrum is occupied by government agencies, and that’s where critics see room for efficiencies. The Kerry-Snowe bill would direct the FCC and NTIA to compile a report on how the various branches of the government are using (or not using) their spectrum allotments. Agencies that could demonstrate compelling national security concerns would be exempt from the reporting requirement.

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