FCC could begin purchasing spectrum to prevent wireless 'overload'

Consumers' rush to buy the data-hungry iPhone and similar devices is beginning to strain the wireless system -- and could force the Federal Communications Commission to purchase network resources from broadcasters, according to media reports.

An unnamed FCC official told BusinessWeek on Thursday the agency was considering the move in order to avoid a communications crisis that would ultimately mean more dropped calls and slower connections for customers nationwide.

The arrangement would require congressional approval, and its funding would come in part from the FCC's plan to auction off those open wireless airwaves, which could net the agency billions

Still, it remains unclear whether the FCC might actually propose it as part of its National Broadband Plan, due to Congress in March, much less whether lawmakers might be willing to spend any money to support it.

At the very least, FCC officials have openly recognized a wireless spectrum crisis lingers in the not-distant future.

At a conference this year, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski described the situation as "a looming crisis," noting the spectrum would soon be "overloaded" by data-driven wireless devices.

He and his colleagues repeated that concern following Apple's decision to launch the iPad, which FCC officials predicted in a telling blog post would create "even greater demand for mobile broadband on the horizon."

But those concerns may not translate into sufficient support on Capitol Hill. Among other concerns, some experts fear the lack of clarity about how much the FCC might make off bandwidth auctions could prompt lawmakers to grow skittish about committing funds to the proposed purchase plan. Skepticism about any spending persists in both chambers, and it will only grow as November elections draw near.

Conversely, the networks too might reject the idea, deciding instead to hold onto spectrum space they know to be incredibly valuable, according to BusinessWeek.