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Spectrum Management Is Needed

The American public benefits from the careful stewardship of our common resources. Oil, gas and minerals developed from publicly owned lands generate billions of dollars in government revenue. Another public resource managed for our benefit by the federal government is the spectrum. The spectrum is broadcast airwaves, a series of frequencies used to delivery signals from one place to another.

With oversight and direction by Congress, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration manages the federal government’s use of the spectrum, while the Federal Communications Commission manages all other use. This resource is an extremely important part of our overall telecommunications policy.

As a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and vice chairman of the subcommittee on telecommunications, I’ve been witness to the societal and economical revolution fueling the field of telecommunications. Despite the current setbacks in the industry in terms of capital investment and labor productivity, there continues to be a revolution in telecommunications development that is obvious in our daily lives. Cell phones, PDAs, satellite systems, HDTV — the list of new technologies and applications continues to grow.

Yet there are difficulties hampering the utilization of the spectrum. For example, there is the 1998 declaration of bankruptcy by NextWave, which failed to make payment on the spectrum it won in 1996. In 2001, with NextWave’s spectrum licenses in bankruptcy, the FCC re-auctioned those licenses. This decision to cancel NextWave’s licenses and to re-auction the spectrum led to extended litigation.

This litigation produced a serious problem for the successful wireless bidders for that auction — they did not receive the spectrum and they did not receive all of their deposits back. As a matter of fairness, I offered H.R. 4738 requiring the FCC to refund the full amount of all deposits and down payments of the 13 winning companies who were awarded licenses. I am pleased that in November, the FCC decided to release the carriers from their successful bids and to return all of their deposits.

That was not the end of the legal proceedings. The U.S. Supreme Court in January ruled that bankruptcy law protects the bankrupt carrier’s licenses and that the FCC acted inappropriately in re-auctioning the licenses. Although the recent Supreme Court decision is not directly related to my legislation, it brings to a close a costly litigious battle that left needed spectrum unused. It is my hope that the FCC will act quickly to put the unused spectrum to productive use to benefit the American people.

Not only does the NextWave decision bring needed certainty to the law, it also underscores that a comprehensive plan on spectrum management should be a top priority for the 108th Congress.

In November 2002, the Spectrum Policy Task Force released its report on recommendations to effectively manage the electromagnetic radio spectrum. FCC Chairman Michael Powell established the task force to assist the FCC in addressing the key issues in spectrum policy reform. This report represents a significant first step in developing a comprehensive plan to meet the challenges of the ever- increasing demands for spectrum for both commercial and federal uses.

Two key themes in this report will be a driving force in spectrum reform: flexibility and efficiency. Current spectrum policy is antiquated and rigid. Technological innovations and the increasing demand for spectrum far surpass the ability of current FCC spectrum policies to effectively manage this resource. If we are to realize the full benefits of what our evolving telecommunications world has to offer, we must ensure that industry participants have a predictable course in meeting consumer demand for new services. [IMGCAP(1)]

Flexibility provides certainty. If the market participant has the ability to determine the best use of its spectrum, be it a licensed or unlicensed user, it will therefore encourage not only more efficient use of spectrum, but also encourage investment. Furthermore, increased flexibility would also allow for better access for new users. The “Secondary Market” approach provides a unique opportunity for spectrum users, through leasing arrangements or other determined means, to negotiate better use of surplus spectrum. We cannot overstate the need to increase the efficient use of spectrum, which is the ability to move the greatest amount of data and information with the least amount of spectrum. In addition, we need to identify ways to increase capacity by addressing the areas where certain bands of spectrum are either unused or used only during certain times of day.

One of the greatest arguments that defines spectrum policy is that of scarcity, and it does not fall short of examples. In addition to wireless, broadcast, commercial satellite and other commercial uses, we also have the federal government, and particularly the Defense Department, which is the largest user of spectrum, demanding additional capacity. Alone, C4ISR (Command, Control, Communication, Computer and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) the backbone of our military decision-making capability, consumes enormous amounts of bandwidth. Such demands will not decrease, especially in light of the increased reliance of unmanned aerial vehicles and advanced avionics and satellite platforms.

However, we may not have to operate under the scarcity argument for much longer. New technologies that greatly increase the transfer of data are appearing on the scene. For instance, wave division multiplexing is a method for increasing the transmission capacity of fiber optics. This and other technologies are being explored for military avionics applications and surely can apply to industry needs as well.

We are now in the 21st century, and federal policies should reflect that fact. Dynamic changes in the telecommunications industry are transforming the economy and Congress should not be an obstacle to these advances. By developing a comprehensive spectrum management plan, Congress can ease the ties holding back innovation and expansion that produce new services and economic opportunities for the American people.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

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