Congress won't kill off new unlicensed spectrum after all

Rest easy, America: Congress has decided against killing the next generation of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

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A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers today touted a new agreement that would preserve the Federal Communications Commission's ability to open up new unlicensed spectrum. The new agreement represents a compromise from the spectrum legislation that the House passed late last year that barred the FCC from designating newly freed spectrum as unlicensed and mandated all newly acquired spectrum be put up for a competitive auction.

The latest compromise achieved between House and Senate lawmakers last night preserves the FCC's right to designate unlicensed spectrum but still prevents the FCC from excluding any carrier from bidding on spectrum. The FCC has traditionally had the power to limit the number of bands that an individual carrier can bid on in an effort to ensure competitive balance in the wireless market. Under the new agreement, the FCC would still have the right to pull licenses from wireless carriers if it believed those carriers had too much spectrum in a given market, however.

During a joint press event held today, Rep. Darrell Issa (R - Calif.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D - Calif.) touted the new deal as a way to open up more potential spectrum for the next generation of unlicensed wireless technologies. Issa in particular pointed out the importance of 802.11 Wi-Fi technology not just in delivering wireless service to consumers but in helping wireless carriers offload some of their cellular traffic and preserve the quality of their networks.

"802.11 carries more packets of data than all cellular spectrum combined," said Issa. "There's a lot more we can do with unlicensed spectrum, it's not just Bluetooth and Wi-Fi."

The original House legislation had drawn the ire of consumer advocacy groups and of former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, who argued that barring the FCC from designating unlicensed spectrum would kill the next generation of unlicensed wireless technology. The media reform group Free Press today expressed relief that Congress had decided to change course when it came to letting the FCC promote unlicensed spectrum.

"Today's news is undeniably good for unlicensed spectrum, a public resource that drives economic growth and spurs technological innovation," said Matt Wood, the action fund policy director for Free Press. "Recent weeks have seen an outpouring of strong bipartisan support for keeping some prime spectrum available for such beneficial uses, if and when the FCC repurposes portions of the TV band."

Wood did, however, criticize the deal's new restrictions that bar the FCC from excluding carriers from bidding on certain spectrum blocks in the name of preserving a competitive market.

In 2010 the FCC set a goal to make 300MHz of spectrum available for wireless broadband use over the next five years with the eventual goal of freeing up 500MHz of spectrum by the end of 2020. The FCC has said that it could reach 300MHz by reallocating 120MHz of spectrum currently used by television broadcasters, with 90MHz coming from mobile satellite providers, 10MHz coming from the 700MHz "D" block, 60MHz coming from the AWS band and 20MHz coming from the Wireless Communications Service band. The FCC has projected that growth in wireless data demand will lead to a "spectrum deficit" of 275MHz if no new spectrum is released by 2014. There is currently 547MHz of spectrum available for dual use in mobile voice and data services.

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