FCC chairman to broadcasters: We’re running out of spectrum, can we have some of yours?

Kate Shepherd Contributor
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WASHINGTON — Unless the U.S. acts soon to make more of the electromagnetic spectrum available to wireless companies, the country could face a serious lag in global competition, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said Wednesday.

Dropped cell phone calls and poor reception are results of the shortage, Genachowski told  the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.  And the FCC chief emphasized that wireless companies need more options.

The National Association of Broadcasters does not oppose a plan for a voluntary incentive auction, NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton said.

“So long as TV stations that don’t volunteer to return their TV licenses, as long as they are not harmed or damaged in any way, we can support the proposal to provide incentive auctions for broadcasters,” he said.

There is concern that the proposed auctions will not be voluntary because the FCC is asking for 120 megahertz of spectrum after broadcasters already gave up 108 megahertz of spectrum less than two years ago, Wharton said.

The electromagnetic spectrum may not be visible to the eye but many Americans use it every day. Television stations and smart phones are some of the devices that rely on the invisible resource.

The FCC wants broadcast companies to voluntarily auction off their unused parts of the spectrum to wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon, whose products have exploded in use in the last three years. Broadcasters would receive a portion of revenue from selling the spectrum.

Three incentive auction bills have been introduced in Congress and are currently in committee.

“If we ran this kind of auction, we would end up with a healthier, broadcast spectrum,” Genachowski  said.

Meanwhile, the administration has been touting the plan in recent weeks, aiming to pressure action on Capitol Hill. Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, and other economists praised the plan at a White House event on April 6.

Emerging markets such as India and China have wider spectrum use which could pose an economic problem for the U.S., Genachowski said.  All major economies understand that mobile technology is important for the future.

“This is why our wireless agenda is such a high priority for us,” he said. “We are working on getting secondary markets on spectrum going. It’s not our little secret that mobile is the future.”

America has a huge advantage in mobile technology innovation and it cannot afford to lose its competitive edge because of a spectrum crunch, Genachowski said.

“We can’t disentangle what happens in our economy from what happens in the global economy,” he said.  “The costs of delay are very high. Not only for consumer frustration…but we are playing with are fire.”

Genachowski also deflected questions about the proposed merger of mobile giants AT&T and T-Mobile that is currently under FCC review. He said he makes it a policy not to discuss details of mergers. He also declined to discuss the Comcast/NBC Universal merger, which the FCC approved earlier this year.