Spectrum Front and Center for Wireless Industry

WASHINGTON — Of all the items on the fast-growing wireless industry’s policy agenda, none might rank higher than spectrum reform.

Here at the National Press Club, Georgetown University’s Center for Business and Public Policy hosted a day-long conference on wireless technologies, lining up academics, business figures and government officials to expound on where the industry stands, and where it is headed. Spectrum was the watchword of the day.

“We the United States are significantly behind our international counterparts in identifying spectrum that can be used for wireless services,” said Carolyn Brandon, vice president of policy at CTIA, the wireless industry association.

“We all agree that more needs to be made available,” she said. “The fight will be over who gets what and for what purposes.”

Reforming the government’s management of the wireless spectrum is emerging as a central element of the technology policy debate in Washington as the new administration and Congress explore new avenues toward more ubiquitous deployment and adoption of high-speed Internet services.

A great deal of the spectrum is locked away in remote corners of the federal government, and many industry insiders and observers have suggested that some portions could be put to better use in commercial applications.

That movement is gaining some traction in Congress. Recently, a bipartisan pair of senators introduced a bill calling for a thorough inventory of the commercial spectrum licenses and government allocations with an eye toward putting the spectrum to more efficient use.

One speaker also floated the idea of trying to reclaim some patches of spectrum from TV broadcasters for wireless data networks. Of course, that plan would spark vigorous opposition from the powerful broadcast lobby, a drama that played out in the fight over TV white spaces last year.

Michelle Connolly, chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, said there is a concerted effort under way at the agency to reassess the way it manages the spectrum under its purview.

Connolly said she is currently immersed in the FCC’s efforts to develop a national broadband strategy that was mandated in the economic stimulus bill. That project, which aims to lay out a roadmap for universal broadband service to facilitate applications like distance learning, telemedicine, and smart-grid technologies, will almost certainly entail some type of spectrum reform.

“I don’t think we can really do any of those things without an overhaul of the current system,” Connolly said.

Beyond spectrum, the panelists at the afternoon session of today’s conference emphasized the importance of kindling consumer demand for broadband service as a key to the growth prospects of the wireless industry.

“There’s a huge value in increasing adoption,” said Richard Clarke, an economist with AT&T. “The key thing is trying to figure out what has inhibited adoption and improve that.”

The FCC is considering demand-side issues as it crafts the national broadband strategy. The stimulus bill also directs hundreds of millions of dollars toward driving consumer adoption and funding public computing facilities and training programs.

In addition to the broadband plan, Connelly said she is also working on the agency’s Universal Service Fund (USF), which subsidizes telephone service for low-income Americans.

Reforming the USF to include broadband service has been on the FCC’s to-do list for the better part of a decade, but the issue has languished. Connelly said she expected the agency to consider USF reform and other methods of subsidizing broadband to drive adoption, but she cautioned that the demand issue is more complex than just pricing.

“Cost isn’t necessarily the reason that people don’t take advantage of broadband,” she said, citing a Pew study in which many people said they simply weren’t interested in high-speed Internet service as evidence that government and industry need to come up with alternative methods to drive demand.

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