To Share or to Clear: Commissioners Stake Out Next Steps for Federal Spectrum

Keep up with the latest developments and legal issues in the telecommunications and emerging technology sectors, with exclusive access to a comprehensive collection of telecommunications law news,...

By Bob Emeritz

Sept. 9 — Four FCC Commissioners—two Democrats, two Republicans—discussed the rules of engagement for the next stage of the campaign to fill the wireless spectrum pipeline: how to wrest spectrum from reluctant federal incumbents.

The collegial but spirited debate arose at CTIA—The Wireless Association's Super Mobility Week conference in Las Vegas, in a panel session moderated by CTIA president and former Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker.

Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly kicked off the exchange by noting that the industry has gone six years since the last major auction of spectrum. Auctions won't fill the long-term needs of the swiftly growing wireless market, he warned. Rather, the next pipeline refill must come from a joint effort by the commission and the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration—coordinator of spectrum reserved for federal government use—to reduce the government's allocation.

The federal government must become more spectrum-efficient, O'Rielly said, or must rely on private businesses to fulfill its need for wireless services. Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel agreed in part.

“The world's gone wireless,” she said, “and we must be more creative going forward.”

Rosenworcel proposed offering incentives to get civil and military agencies to part with spectrum. “Knocking on the doors of the DoD won't suffice. We need to put incentives on the federal government to put spectrum into the pipeline. Until they see some gain from reallocating, we are reduced to continued pleading,” she concluded.

Rosenworcel's Democratic colleague Mignon Clyburn, who remains concerned about the disproportionate impact that spectrum scarcity is having on cord-cutting lower-income customers, supported spectrum sharing.

Republican Ajit Pai agreed in part, but warned that “the FCC does not write on a blank slate with regard to federal spectrum.”

“Sharing can be considered only where clearing has failed. Clearing is ultimately the best course,” Pai argued. Commissioner O'Rielly concurred, and added, “It is essential to be forceful with federal agencies to give up spectrum that is being used inefficiently. The days of ‘can't give it up, can't tell you why’ are past.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bob Emeritz in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Barbagallo at

Request Tech & Telecom on Bloomberg Law