WASHINGTON Global competitiveness in the U.S. telecom and media sector will hinge on making more airwaves available to keep pace with the booming wireless market, government and industry officials agreed on Wednesday.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said U.S. spectrum infrastructure is being outstripped by consumer demand for new wireless devices, threatening U.S. global leadership in wireless innovation.
"Every month that goes by without tackling this is a month that hurts us from a global competitiveness perspective," he said during a Brookings Institution discussion on Wednesday.
AT&T Inc Chief Executive Randall Stephenson said 10 megahertz of spectrum, in years past, would last the company four or five years. "Today, we'll burn through that in about 10 months," he told the forum on growth through innovation.
The Obama administration has endorsed making 500 megahertz of spectrum available over the next 10 years to meet the growing demand for broadband services.
The FCC hopes to repurpose 120 megahertz of spectrum through incentive auctions where television broadcasters like CBS Corp would voluntarily give up spectrum in exchange for a portion of the proceeds.
Congress must give the FCC authority before such auctions can go ahead.
"It could be one of the areas where Chairman Genachowski is able to attract some bipartisan support when you consider that Congress is looking for ways to reduce the federal deficit," Medley Global Advisors analyst Jeffrey Silva told Reuters.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton said in a statement issued later on Wednesday that finding additional spectrum for broadband would be a priority this year and legislation would likely include "voluntary incentive auctions."
The powerful National Association of Broadcasters has said it does not oppose "truly voluntary" incentive auctions if they do not threaten the transmission of free, local television.
Genachowski said he was "hopeful but not certain" that Congress would approve the auctions.
Wireless companies have lobbied for help to deal with a looming spectrum crunch as more consumers turn to mobile devices like Apple Inc's iPad to surf the Web.
Time Warner Chief Executive Jeffrey Bewkes told the Brookings forum that the future of the media industry is in business models that capitalize on wireless devices.
The next big thing, he said, is television, magazine and all other content available on demand on any device -- TV, computer, smartphone, tablet.
But to make this a reality at a price the public can afford, "the one brick wall we're looking at is availability of spectrum," said AT&T's Stephenson.
Stephenson said AT&T has spent $11 billion on spectrum over the last three years, and still needs more.
Genachowski told the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that the U.S. government could put more wireless airwaves on the market as early as a year from now if authorized by Congress to share the proceeds with broadcasters.
(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)