FCC's Wheeler: Next 18 Months Are Crucial for Spectrum Future of Nation

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March 24 --Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said the government's work to modernize spectrum policy in the next year and a half would revolutionize U.S. wireless networks.  

During a March 24 event hosted by the Hamilton Project, Wheeler said he would soon unveil proposed rules aimed at ensuring greater sharing of spectrum. Wheeler also said that FCC officials would soon begin briefing FCC commissioners and Congress on how the agency plans to conduct the congressionally mandated broadcast spectrum incentive auction of the 600 megahertz (MHz) band in 2015.

“Together, the incentive auction and spectrum sharing mark watershed moments in the evolution of spectrum management,” said Wheeler. “We will make unprecedented use of market mechanisms, and of the flexibility of digital technology to derive greater value from the finite spectrum resource.”

Broadcast Incentive Auctions

This year, agency officials plan to develop rules for a reverse spectrum that will enable TV broadcasters to voluntarily release their spectrum in return for a portion of the proceeds from a subsequent forward auction of the relinquished spectrum. The remaining revenue generated from the forward auction of the spectrum to wireless carriers will fund the $7 billion development of FirstNet, a nationwide interoperable communications network for first responders, and help pay down the nation's debt.

The broadcast spectrum incentive auctions present a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for broadcasters, and we are committed to providing them with information about both our process and the financial opportunity the auction represents to enable them to make informed business decisions about whether and how to participate,” Wheeler said. “Seldom have I seen such a risk-free opportunity as that represented to broadcasters by the incentive auction, including the opportunity to continue their existing business on shared spectrum and take home a check for the spectrum they vacate,” Wheeler said.

The FCC has engaged broadcasters in outreach and education programs aimed at persuading them to release their spectrum in return for a portion of the spectrum revenue. Many broadcasters have hesitated to participate because of changing dynamics in the broadcast marketplace and what they say is a lack of specificity from the FCC as to how the auction will proceed.

Seeing Benefits

Wheeler acknowledged that the spectrum incentive auctions will force broadcasters and other spectrum holders to confront change and risk to their business models. “But if we proceed responsibly, as I am confident we are, the rewards of vastly improved spectrum policy will make our collective endeavor entirely worthwhile for everyone involved,” he said.

Wheeler noted that the average amount of spectrum sold in the FCC's six previous sub-3 gigahertz (GHz) auctions was 45 MHz. The largest amount of spectrum sold in any auction was 90 MHz, he said. The FCC does not currently know how many broadcasters will participate, and thus how much spectrum would be made available in the spectrum incentive auctions.

Spectrum Sharing Rules

The FCC's forthcoming rules regarding spectrum sharing are designed to make President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) spectrum sharing vision a reality, Wheeler said.

Wheeler said the forthcoming rulemaking to encourage greater spectrum sharing will seek to:

• create prioritized tiers of the nation's spectrum users,

• develop a single, highly flexible band plan,

• anticipate a wide range of flexible uses including small cell use, and

• establish a flexible auction and licensing scheme via a spectrum access system database.


“In less than two years since the PCAST report's release, the concept of sharing has already come a long way,” Wheeler said. In July 2012, PCAST emphasized the importance of spectrum sharing among federal agencies and between commercial and federal users. The report identifies how technologies like software-enabled radios can increase efficiencies and allow federal, nonfederal, and commercial entities to share the same bands of spectrum.

3.5 GHz 'Innovation' Band

The FCC will also urge stakeholders to evaluate new ways to help wireless radios transmit and receive signals more efficiently, Wheeler said.

“Both the PCAST and the FCC's Technological Advisory Council recommended that we target the 3.5 GHz as an ’innovation band.’ ” Wheeler said. “That's exactly what we're doing.”

The 3.5 GHz band provides a “real-life opportunity to apply some bold thinking about receiver performance,” Wheeler said. “In parallel to our formal rulemaking, I expect that a multistakeholder group will be convened to explore ways to drive not only efficient transmission, but also efficient reception, in the band.”

The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversees the spectrum licenses for all government agencies, has made spectrum available in the 3.5 GHz band for sharing between commercial and federal users. To the FCC, this spectrum is ideally suited for small cells, low-power radios that transmit both licensed and unlicensed spectrum.


To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at bbaschuk@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

Wheeler's remarks are available at http://www.fcc.gov/document/chairman-wheeler-remarks-brookings-institution.

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