Myth vs. Fact: The Rhetoric and Reality of Progress in Allocating More Spectrum for Unlicensed Use

In November 2002, the FCC’s Spectrum Policy Task Force released a report calling for shifting large amounts of spectrum from the current command and control allocation system to both unlicensed and licensed flexible-use service. Since then, the FCC has started numerous proceedings to follow through on these recommendations. But whereas the proceedings granting flexible use to incumbent license holders and others have been fast tracked and completed, the proceedings seeking to allocate more unlicensed spectrum have, with only one notable exception, been sidetracked.

Despite the WiFi boom—and the proven utility of unlicensed frequencies to deploy inexpensive wireless broadband networks—there is actually less unlicensed spectrum available today in the high-penetration, “beachfront” frequencies below 3 GHz than there was in 2002. The time has come to call attention to the difference between the rhetoric and reality of progress in allocating more spectrum for unlicensed use.

Congress has recognized the problem. This month, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, along with a bipartisan foursome of Commerce Committee members (Sens. Allen, Sununu, Kerry and Boxer) introduced similar bills to open vacant (and currently wasted) TV band spectrum for unlicensed use by wireless broadband providers.

These bills order the FCC to complete its rulemaking (Docket 04-186) that proposes to allocate the unused spectrum between TV channels 2 and 51 (called “guard bands” or “white space”) to unlicensed use—a widely-supported reallocation that has been stalled since the departure last year of Chairman Michael Powell.

To understand the economic logic of unlicensed spectrum, see New America’s Issue Brief on the topic.

To read this entire Fact Sheet, see the attached PDF document.