White House unveils plan to free up spectrum for wireless broadband

President Barack Obama has signed a presidential memorandum committing the government to freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum over the next decade for wireless broadband use, the White House announced on Monday.

The effort mirrors the same goal set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the National Broadband Plan, but adds new details on where and how the spectrum will be found. It also tries to fast-track the FCC's proposals, asking for spectrum sources to be identified by October.

In the White House's most high-profile broadband speech to date, National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers unveiled the initiative at the New America Foundation on Monday.

Calling spectrum "this generation's crucial resource," he warned of a "spectrum crunch" and touted the economic benefit of devoting spectrum to wireless broadband.

"This policy is a win three times over," he said. "It creates prosperity and jobs while at the same time raising revenue for public purposes like public safety and increasing our ability to compete internationally."


The executive memorandum directs the Commerce Department (through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration) to work with the FCC to locate spectrum by October, initiating an inventory of federal and commercial spectrum.

The inventory can go forward independent of congressional efforts to do the same, currently stalled in the Senate, a senior administration official said.

The White House order also backed one of the most explosive recommendations in the National Broadband Plan: Creating incentive-based auctions for broadcasters to sell off their airwaves.

Summers said the strategy would allow for more efficient use of those bands, citing situations in which broadcasting stations worth tens of thousands of dollars may have rights to spectrum allotments worth tens of millions of dollars.

But the White House made assurances on Monday that spectrum relinquishments will be voluntary.

"The president supports a voluntary approach, one in which people are only giving up spectrum if it is something they want to do based on the compensation they are getting," a senior administration official said. "The philosophy is win-win-win."

The National Association of Broadcasters Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton said the group "appreciates assurances that further reclamation of broadcast television spectrum will be completely voluntary … we're convinced that America can have both the finest broadband and broadcasting system in the world without jeopardizing the future of free and local TV service to tens of millions of viewers."

The new effort will also scour government agencies for inefficient spectrum use — and for ways to share the allotments — while attempting to raise proceeds from the auctions within the federal bands. 

It will use proceeds from those transfers for public safety programs and infrastructure projects, such as high-speed rail, according to a senior administration official.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski issued a statement welcoming the White House initiative on Monday.

"The Administration’s strong action today is a critical step toward ensuring that America will lead the world in mobile broadband," he said in a statement, noting that the goals in the National Broadband Plan "require exactly the kind of cross-government collaboration outlined by the Administration today."

The White House effort could help reinvigorate public attention to the National Broadband Plan, which has languished on the PR front as questions of the FCC's legal authority over broadband have overshadowed the blueprint's sweeping goals.  

One FCC voice, however, saw the effort as largely symbolic.

"Memoranda announcing intentions to act can be helpful, but they should not be mistaken for real action," Commissioner Robert McDowell, a Republican, said in a statement. "I remain hopeful that the FCC will do its part to spur innovation and job growth sooner rather than later."