As part of a national broadband plan, FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski Wednesday outlined a new initiative allowing television broadcasters to give up spectrum in exchange for a cut of auction revenue.
Speaking at the New America Foundation think tank, Genachowski said the FCC would propose a "Mobile Future Auction" in which broadcasters and other licensees could trade in spectrum in return for a share of the proceeds of spectrum auctions as a way to help expand mobile broadband.
"The Mobile Future Auction would allow broadcasters to elect to participate in a mechanism that could save costs for broadcasters while also being a major part of the solution to one of our country's most significant challenges," said the FCC Commissioner, who set a goal of freeing up 500 Megahertz of spectrum over the next decade.
He pointed to one study that suggested as much as $50 billion in value could be unlocked if we adopted policies to convert some of the broadcast spectrum to mobile broadband. To date, broadcasters have strongly opposed the FCC possibly taking back some of the national airwaves from TV stations to help meet growing demand for wireless broadband services.
TV executives say they want to use their broadcast spectrum to be able to offer more digital channels, HD and programming for mobile devices. The Mobile Future Auction would potentially provide a market-based incentive for broadcasters to free up spectrum for mobile broadband.
But Genachowski argued that spectrum allotted for broadcast TV isn't being used efficiently. "About 300 megahertz of spectrum have been set aside for broadcast TV," he said. "Even in our very largest cities, at most only about 150 megahertz out of 300 megahertz are used." That's true even with the recent reallocation of spectrum in the digital TV transition, he noted.
The National Association of Broadcasters fired back Wednesday in a statement defending its spectrum use: "As a one-to-many transmission medium, broadcasters are ready to make the case that we are far and away the most efficient users of spectrum in today's communications marketplace," read the NAB release.
"We look forward to working with policymakers to help expand the roll-out of broadband without threatening the future of free and local television, mindful of the fact that local TV stations just returned more than a quarter of our spectrum following our transition to digital."
But Genachowski suggested the future auction could be beneficial for all parties. "For broadcasters, who win more flexibility to pursue business models to serve their local communities; and for the public, which wins more innovation in mobile broadband services, continued free, over-the-air television, and the benefits of the proceeds of new and substantial auction revenues," he said.
To help increase broadband adoption, Genachowski also proposed a "Mobility Fund" as part of wider reforms to the Universal Service Fund. Without increasing the size of the USF, it would seek to provide one-time funding to build infrastructure enabling "robust mobile broadband networks, to bring all states to a minimum level of mobile availability."
For its part, the CTIA expressed support for the chairman's remarks. "By proposing to free up 500 MHz of new spectrum for mobile broadband use, Chairman Genachowski has taken a tremendous step toward maintaining our worldwide mobile ecosystem leadership," said CTIA head Steve Largent, in a statement.
Genachowski's speech Wednesday was the latest in a series of talks he has given on the national broadband plan which the FCC is scheduled to submit to Congress March 17.