FCC's Levin wants more spectrum. Lots of it.

Net neutrality is really about a type of competition the FCC is trying to grapple with, said Levin, who is leading the effort to develop a National Broadband Plan that is due to Congress in February.

“There’s competition between service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, but net neutrality is more about a very different type of competition — competition within the ecosystem,” he said during a panel I moderated with him at the AlwaysOn conference earlier this week. “Take the iPhone, which caused AT&T’s data use to go up 5,000 percent. Is AT&T a competitor to Apple or a partner? If you study the economics of it, it’s a little bit of both, and that’s what you see with Google Voice as well.”

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Regardless of whether net neutrality measures are put in place, Levin said, by far the biggest concern is the lack of spectrum available. CTIA, the lobbying group that represents wireless carriers, said the industry needs at least 800 megahertz (MHz) of radio waves over the next decade to meet demand. It takes up to 13 years to clear those waves so they can be repurposed for wireless use. But the FCC has plans to clear only 50 MHz.

“There’s nothing that will cause prices to go up and quality to suffer more than the lack of spectrum,” Levin said. “It’s difficult to get policymakers to focus on a problem that doesn’t exist yet, but I feel confident that if we want to be a leader in mobile broadband, we have to face the difficult decisions of how to get more spectrum.”

Should broadcasters therefore be worried that more airwaves could be taken from them, similar to what happened when Congress mandated the digital television transition?

"Yes, they should be worried, and everyone else should be worried,” he said.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee that handles communications and Internet issues, has sponsored a bill to take a detailed inventory of all government spectrum holdings to be sure all airwaves are being used efficiently. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce panel that covers technology, has also listed spectrum inventory as a priority.

But government agencies are likely to fight to keep their spectrum holdings. Just last week, Department of Defense deputy assistant secretary Ron Jost said the department has its own growing spectrum requirements, driven by the need for more and more bandwidth to, for example, transfer video and other data collected by unmanned aerial vehicles and other data-gathering equipment used in the field.

Bruce Mehlman, chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, a coalition of communications companies such as AT&T and Nortel, said the hunger for more spectrum may never be sated.

“There’s no provider of wireless broadband that has enough spectrum today for the wireless broadband of tomorrow,” he said.