In a letter to the FCC submitted Monday, the DOJ's Antitrust Division seeks to find ways to increase spectrum while maintaining a competitive marketplace.
"Given the potential of wireless services to reach underserved areas and to provide an alternative to wireline broadband providers in other areas, the (FCC's) primary tool for promoting broadband competition should be freeing up spectrum," wrote Christine Varney, head of the division. "the scarcity of spectrum is a fundamental obstacle that the Commission should address. Stated simply, without access to sufficient spectrum a firm cannot provide state-of-the-art wireless broadband services."
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski sounded the spectrum scarcity alarm in October when he warned of a looming "spectrum crisis." The boom in smartphones, particularly with the iPhone and its 3 billion App Store downloads, is beginning to clog up wireless networks and the crunch is certain to become more acute as consumers flock to smartphones.
The DOJ also urged the FCC to find a way to encourage new entrants that could deliver more broadband services to consumers. With some 500 megahertz of spectrum currently available, industry sources have said they need another 800 megahertz to adequately serve the market in the future.
The FCC has suggested that wider use of Wi-Fi and femtocells as well as more wireless towers would help free up more spectrum, but even those approaches are generally viewed as stopgap measures.
The trajectory of spectrum use points to burgeoning use. The DOJ noted that the average monthly minutes of wireless use has increased from about 100 in 1997 to almost 800 in 2007.
The Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration filed a similar letter with the FCC on Monday, urging that more spectrum be made available for wireless broadband services. In the letter, Lawrence Strickling, NTIA head, said more spectrum would be "a primary tool for promoting broadband competition."