Unlicensed spectrum a sticking point in House talks

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 As Congress looks to restructure how the nation uses its airwaves, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are pushing to devote more spectrum for unlicensed use. Democratic aides say it is one of the most important issues in the negotiations. 

They argue that unlicensed spectrum spurs innovation and economic growth. Opening up more unlicensed spectrum is also a top priority for many tech companies. 

Last month, a coalition of tech companies and interest groups, including Google and Microsoft, sent a letter to the congressional supercommittee on deficit reduction, urging the lawmakers to preserve unlicensed spectrum. 

“The economic benefits, including jobs and innovations, associated with unlicensed use depend on the continued availability of unlicensed spectrum to keep up with skyrocketing demand,” the groups wrote.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who represents Silicon Valley, regularly hears from her constituents about the need to preserve and promote unlicensed spectrum, an aide said. Eshoo is the ranking Democrat on the Communications and Technology subcommittee.

A particularly contentious portion of unlicensed spectrum is the “white space” between television channels. White spaces are powerful portions of unlicensed spectrum that would allow for “super Wi-Fi” that could carry Internet signals for miles and through brick walls. The technology would allow cities and towns to set up massive Wi-Fi hotspots.

The Federal Communications Commission set aside white spaces for unlicensed use last year.

Top Republicans on the committee want to preserve some unlicensed spectrum, but they argue that dedicating too much spectrum for unlicensed use is a give-away to big tech companies.

The growing popularity of data-hungry smartphones and tablet computers has driven up the value of spectrum in recent years. Auctioning off spectrum bands could raise billions of dollars for the government.   

"Unlicensed spectrum certainly has its place, and throughout the negotiations on spectrum reform, it has always been clear that unlicensed spectrum will remain available and may even increase,” Communications and Technology subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told The Hill. “In addition to the white spaces, there is more spectrum available today for unlicensed use than licensed spectrum available for all the commercial wireless providers combined. The question is whether we should give away billions of dollars' worth of this particular spectrum, especially if we are spending taxpayer money to relocate broadcasters and government users to clear it in the first place.”

Unlicensed spectrum advocates say the television white spaces could generate billions of dollars in economic activity.

“If that's true, is it unrealistic to ask them to compensate taxpayers for it at a time when we are trying to dig out from the deficit?" Walden asked.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved Chairman Jay Rockefeller’s (D-W.Va.) spectrum bill in June, but the measure has not come up for a vote in the full Senate.

Both the Senate bill and a Democratic House draft version would allow the FCC to begin allocating spectrum for unlicensed use after it first auctioned off 84 MHz of spectrum that currently belong to television broadcasters.