Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Calling for Speedy and Purposeful Action on the Spectrum Plan

After much anticipation, on Monday NTIA finally released its "Plan and Timetable to Make Available 500 Megahertz of Spectrum for Wireless Broadband." The report outlines federal agency efforts to implement the President's goal of making 500 MHz of spectrum available by 2020. Along with the "Plan and Timetable," NTIA released what it calls its "Fast Track Evaluation" of certain spectrum bands under consideration for reallocation and auction, calling for making 115 MHz available by 2015. Additional data collection, assessments, analyses by federal agencies are set to follow the course set out in NTIA's reports, with a first Interim Progress Report slated for April 2011.

NTIA's spectrum reports come not a moment too soon. Much more spectrum needs to be made available to accommodate surging, data-rich wireless traffic. And delays will seriously impede the ability of the wireless market to meet consumer needs in the near future. It is critical that federal agencies — and NTIA and the FCC, in particular — act with seriousness of purpose and speed in reallocating and auctioning new spectrum for commercial use.

The President's June 28, 2010, memorandum on wireless broadband affirmed the importance of making more spectrum commercially available, insisting "America's future competitiveness and global technology leadership depend, in part, upon the availability of additional spectrum." As the "Plan and Timetable" puts it, "[t]he U.S. wireless industry is an economic engine with a total economic impact estimated to be at least $40 to $50 billion annually. The industry estimates that over 2.4 million American jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on it." However, as Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and Lawrence Summers point out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, "while demand for America's spectrum resources is increasing at rapid rates—the amount of information flowing over some wireless networks is growing at over 250% per year — there has not been a corresponding increase in supply." A lack of new spectrum supply to meet increasing consumer demands will result not only in lost consumer benefits, reduced technological innovation, and lost economic opportunity, but also in reductions to existing wireless service quality due to wireless network congestion.

In implementing the President's spectrum reallocation and auction goals between now and 2015 and 2020, there will undoubtedly be many procedural steps along the way. NTIA, the FCC and other agencies must not let those steps become occasions for creeping delays. Federal agencies implementing the "Plan and Timetable" for making new spectrum available must take reasoned but rapid action. This means completing necessary steps on schedule and refusing to be derailed by extraneous issues or interagency disputes about secondary matters.

Given the lengthy delays that hampered past spectrum reallocation and auction efforts, NTIA and the FCC must treat this issue with the priority it deserves. Even modest delays can eventually pile up to make for huge delays, making a ten-year initiative take twelve years, or fifteen, or twenty. Consider, for example, the length of time it took between the passage of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 that gave the FCC auction authority and the 700 MHz auction and related DTV transition. The latter two events did not take place until 2008 and 2009, respectively. NTIA, the FCC and the other agencies must not let similar kinds of ongoing delays bog down the spectrum "Plan and Timetable."

Unfortunately, there is already at least some reason to be concerned about the pace of progress being made in implementing the "Plan and Timetable" for making 500 MHz of new spectrum available for commercial use. One might say that NTIA's reports got off to a slow start. While eyes were previously on the October 1 deadline set in both the National Broadband Plan and the President's memorandum, the public release of NTIA's reports comes a month-and-a-half later than many anticipated. According to a news account in TRDaily from last week, "[t]he reports were completed by an Oct. 1 deadline set by the Obama administration but have been in the interagency review process since then." NTIA's "Plan and Timetable" and "Fast Track Evaluation" also insist they were completed by October 1. But the lengthy interagency review process makes it seem like the real deadline for the reports' completion was open-ended. Agencies that take spectrum seriously should use hard deadlines and take those seriously too. (Hopefully, all federal agencies will have vetted and the public will see NTIA's first Interim Progress Report by its April 11, 2011 deadline.)

There may be any number of reasons why interagency review of NTIA's spectrum reports took so long. But rather than speculate about what those may be, one hopes that NTIA and the other agencies involved have now sufficiently greased the wheels when it comes to interagency collaboration and coordination so that future reports and activities concerning spectrum reallocation and auction will be made promptly or even ahead of schedule.

Another road bump to early progress in implementing the spectrum "Plan and Timetable" is the absence from NTIA's "Fast Track Evaluation" of any recommendation involving one particularly sought-after slice of spectrum. "NTIA is currently unable to make a recommendation concerning the 1755-1780 MHz band," it insisted, "because there was not sufficient time to complete the analysis of the band and to develop agreed-upon relocation transition plans by the October 1, 2010 deadline for this Report." (For some reason, the agency still included "1755-1780 MHz" in the report's title.) NTIA acknowledged that "[b]ecause this band is harmonized internationally for mobile operations, wireless equipment already exists, and the band provides signal characteristics advantageous to mobile operations, it continues to be a priority for analysis, pursuant to the Ten-Year Plan and Timetable."

Some catch-up by NTIA is in order regarding the 1755-1780 MHz band. The characteristics of the 1755-1780 MHz band as described by NTIA are consonant with a spectrum scan conducted by T-Mobile this summer that included the 1755-1780 MHz band in eight major markets. The conclusion from that spectrum scan was that the 1755-1780 MHz band in particular holds significant promise for commercial use. Accordingly, NTIA must live up to its word in treating that slice of spectrum as a priority in implementing the spectrum "Plan and Timetable." NTIA should demonstrate its seriousness of purpose by getting its "Fast Track Evaluation" of the 1755-1789 MHz band completed, and fast.

Going forward, federal agencies – and especially NTIA and the FCC – must act with a continued sense of urgency and purpose in implementing the spectrum "Plan and Timetable." Issuance of NTIA's spectrum reports may be a major first step. But absent accelerated, continuous, purposeful effort to accomplish spectrum reallocation and auction goals, the ambitious interagency initiative will stumble over innumerable bureaucratic tripwires.