FCC proposes wireless use of broadcast airwaves

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. telecommunications regulators proposed freeing up more airwaves for wireless services to meet the expanding use of handheld devices.

A man looks at his phone in Times Square as a rain storm hits New York, October 1, 2010. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously on Tuesday to seek public comment on proposals that include the use of some broadcast television airwaves for wireless devices.

“The explosive growth of mobile communications threatens to outpace the infrastructure on which it relies,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told an FCC open meeting.

The FCC is looking to entice broadcasters to give up some of their airwaves so that consumers can better download data on smart phones like Research in Motion Ltd’s BlackBerry and Apple Inc’s iPhone and other wireless devices.

There was still no word late Tuesday on whether the FCC plans to act on contentious Internet traffic rules this year, another key part of shaping future broadband access.

The agenda for the agency’s December 21 meeting had been widely expected on Tuesday, but could slip until later in the week.

The issue of so-called net neutrality has sent the agency back to the drawing board after a U.S. appeals court ruled that the FCC lacked the authority to stop cable television company Comcast Corp from blocking bandwidth-hogging applications.

The airwave changes proposed at Tuesday’s FCC meeting have been less contentious, but they still rely on broadcasters like CBS Corp and owners of affiliates, like Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc and LIN TV Corp, to voluntarily give up spectrum. Lawmakers would also have to give the FCC the authority to conduct airwave auctions in which a portion of the proceeds would be shared with broadcasters.

The FCC’s proposed rule changes would help in its plan to repurpose 120 megahertz of spectrum from television stations for mobile broadband use.

The Obama administration has endorsed making 500 megahertz of spectrum available for mobile broadband use.

“Our goal is to be ready to move quickly in the event that Congress authorizes incentive auctions,” Genachowski said.

The National Association of Broadcasters said it did not oppose “truly voluntary” incentive auctions, but has taken issue with spectrum fees outlined in the FCC’s national broadband plan that it believes could force broadcasters to surrender their licenses and could threaten the transmission of free, local television.

One analyst said some broadcasters’ apparent reluctance to turn over underutilized spectrum may simply be a negotiating tactic.

“They’re going to hold out and try for the best deal on what they would be compensated,” Jeffrey Silva, an analyst with Medley Global Advisors, said in an interview.

He also said some lawmakers may be reluctant to authorize the auctions if they are perceived to apply undue pressure to broadcasters in their districts.

“Congress may find itself feeling a little bit conflicted,” Silva said, noting the strength of the broadcast lobby.


Internet content companies and broadband providers are eagerly awaiting the FCC’s action on net neutrality rules, which may be on the agenda for its December meeting.

The FCC typically releases its agenda and circulates proposals to commissioners three weeks ahead of its meeting dates.

Senators John Kerry, Byron Dorgan and Ron Wyden -- long time supporters of Internet traffic rules -- urged the FCC to move forward with net neutrality in December.

“We think the deliberation and discourse has moved the center of opinion within the community of experts, industry, and advocates to a principled compromise that is sustainable and will work,” the senators said in a letter to Genachowski on Tuesday.

Some companies and lawmakers have suggested a compromise that would apply strict net neutrality to landline-delivered broadband but allow looser rules for wireless service.

The net neutrality rules would determine whether high-speed Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon should be allowed to block or slow some traffic, or charge for a “fast lane” to reach users more quickly.

Broadband providers say they should be able to manage their networks but some public interest groups and content providers argue that there should be a level playing field for all Internet users.

Comcast came under attack this week for what Level 3 Communications, a key network partner of Netflix Inc, called a violation of open Internet principles.

Level 3 accused Comcast of charging it unfair fees to deliver content to Comcast subscribers, while Comcast countered that the fees were in line with the increase in traffic that Level 3 will send over Comcast’s network.

Genachowski said the agency is looking into that dispute, but “it would be premature to comment on it without knowing what the facts are.”

Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Tim Dobbyn