House panel looks to free up government-owned airwaves

House panel looks to free up government-owned airwaves
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Lawmakers from both parties at a House hearing Wednesday called for freeing up federally controlled wireless spectrum, echoing similar calls at a Senate hearing in July.

Wireless spectrum includes the frequencies that mobile devices use to receive and send data. While private companies have the rights to use some of it, large swaths of spectrum are still controlled by the federal government — often for military purposes.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who chairs the Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said there should be legislation to make some of that spectrum available to private users.

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“While the speed of innovation and technology is blindingly fast, the timeline for reallocating spectrum often is reflective of the tangled bureaucracy of government and the fiscal and operational restraints on agencies,” he said. “This conflict illustrates the urgent need for legislation to reform the federal system, bring about predictable and transparent auction rules and provide clear incentives for agencies to free up underused or unneeded spectrum.”

The committee discussed two bills, one of which would create financial incentives for federal agencies to give away their spectrum and another that would instruct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to release draft plans for spectrum auctions.

“Together, the pair of bills we’re looking at this morning have the potential to establish a spectrum pipeline to meet consumer needs well into the future,” said Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the full committee’s ranking member.

The discussion of federal spectrum policy comes months after the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on the topic. That panel is expected to release legislation to free up federal spectrum at some point.

Spectrum has become a vital resource as more Americans use wireless devices. Wireless carriers would like to have the opportunity to buy more licensed spectrum, which they are allowed to use exclusively. Other private interests want to see more unlicensed spectrum — which is not exclusive to one user and is crucial to technology like Wi-Fi — made available.

The FCC is also planning to hold an auction next year, where it will buy spectrum from broadcasters and sell it to wireless providers.