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FCC Chairman Outlines Plans To Free Up Spectrum

Whether FCC Chairman Genachowski is reappointed or not, he says a multi-fold vision for making better use of wireless spectrum will proceed.

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FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski this week laid out a multi-fold vision for making better use of wireless spectrum, including some that should be earmarked for special new projects, in hopes of spawning Wi-Fi-like innovations.

"We spend a lot of time thinking about spectrum policy to meet the opportunities we all sense in mobile," Genachowski told an audience at an MIT event on Tuesday.

Among the major initiatives he cited are incentive auctions to open up spectrum long held by broadcasters, new ways to allocate licensed spectrum more efficiently, new unlicensed spectrum and sharing of spectrum long reserved for government use.

[ Will government spending cuts hurt this plan? Read How Sequestration Impacts Federal IT Spending. ]

Genachowski made his remarks in a "fireside chat" discussion with two MIT professors, Dina Katabi and Hari Balakrishnan, who head MIT's Wireless@MIT Center.

The event was a bit of a pep rally for Genachowski, whose term as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission expires in June. It is unclear if Genachowski will be re-appointed to the influential post. Time magazine recently noted he has "managed to annoy almost every constituency" since taking office in June 2009.

He may not be widely liked, but Genachowski can point to a powerful legacy as the backer of the well-regarded National Broadband Plan. Over the last four years, he noted, the U.S. has gone from also-ran to reclaiming leadership in many aspects of wireless innovation.

"The U.S has leapfrogged other countries," he said. "Mobile innovation is U.S-driven today." He cited several key developments:

-- The U.S. has more 4G LTE (long-term evolution) users than the rest of the world combined.

-- The U.S. has the fastest growing rate of capital expenditures for networks, projected to reach $35 billion in 2013, up 60% during the past four years.

-- U.S.-made mobile operating systems own more than 90% of the market today, up from less than 20% four years ago.

-- U.S. companies lead in the development of mobile applications.

But he said the U.S. faces significant challenges, including opening up more spectrum, maintaining Internet openness and improving speed and capacity in wired networks.

Spectrum dominated the questions Genachowski received. He sounded optimistic that next year will see the first so-called incentive auctions, where television broadcasters will be paid for spectrum in the 300-MHz band licensed to them, and the FCC will then repackage the spectrum and auction it off to wireless carriers.

"In New York there are 28 full-power over-the-air TV stations. No one can identify 28 full-power over-the-air TV stations in New York," he said. The incentive auctions will give broadcasters cash for spectrum they don't need, and boost spectrum for everyone else, he said.

Genachowski added that "we're seeing increasing broadcaster interest in this."

Unlicensed spectrum, which has produced breakthroughs like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, drew particular interest from the MIT audience. Genachowski told Katabi that he thought the FCC would reserve "a significant amount" of spectrum for unlicensed use. He noted that last Friday, the FCC authorized database operators to begin using "white spaces" between TV channels on a nationwide basis (it was previously limited to parts of the East Coast).

Will such initiatives continue if Genachowski is not reappointed? He told Information Week that his policies built on previous FCC policy and he expected it would continue with or without him.

MIT's Katabi said she hoped that whoever leads the FCC will pursue the broad vision Genachowski has pushed, saying she was "very excited" about the policies around increasing spectrum, especially unlicensed spectrum.

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