Arik Hesseldahl

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White House Aims to Loosen Grip on Government-Held Wireless Spectrum

mobile_towers_spectrum

iStockphoto | maumapho

The Obama administration has ordered agencies of the U.S. federal government to examine how they use wireless spectrum, with an eye toward letting go of the signal bands they aren’t using as much, so they can be shared with the private sector.

This idea has been knocking around for awhile. When TV broadcasters were being pressured to give up a bunch of spectrum they held for old-school, over-the-air broadcasting, they and their defenders in Congress were often quick to point out that the federal agencies have held on to a big block of wireless spectrum that they don’t always use as efficiently as they could.

The point of all this is to free up spectrum for wireless broadband networks that are straining under the growth of smartphones, tablets and other devices.

Also part of the deal is a $100 million investment to study technologies and techniques to share spectrum. I’ve embedded the original memo from President Obama below.

Public Knowledge, a lobbying group, applauded the move in a statement. Its senior vice president, Harold Feld, said: “Those who have constantly sought to politicize what should be an engineering issue by reflexively balking at the very idea of ‘spectrum sharing’ should consider that we cannot hope to clear more federal spectrum for auction unless we can accommodate more federal users in a smaller number of bands. That requires new sharing technologies. Those who care about supporting our growing wireless economy should recognize that all new spectrum access, whether open to a myriad of innovators and industries or exclusively auction to companies like AT&T and Verizon, is equally valuable. We need more of both.”

The other piece of this is that the White House released a report (PDF here) on improvements in access to residential broadband. You may remember that when President Obama first came into office, expanding access to broadband was a primary cog in his technology and economic development agenda. Sparsely populated rural areas generally had been struggling to get access to the cable modems and even old-school DSL servers that people in cities and suburbs have available as a matter of course.

So the marquee claim on this front today fell just short of declaring victory: The administration now thinks that about 91 percent have access to broadband speeds of at least 10 megabits per second, and another 81 percent have access to wireless networks that are as fast as that.

If that is indeed the case (it will be interesting to see these findings vetted elsewhere), it would be a big improvement over what the situation was as recently as late 2010. That was when a report by the Communications Workers of America, the union representing telecom workers nationwide, found that more than half of all residential broadband connections fell below the baseline speed that the FCC said at the time constituted “broadband.”

White House Wireless Spectrum Memo June 14 2013


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