FCC to release broadband airwaves in big win for cell phone companies

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has repeatedly warned of an impending spectrum shortage that could hinder the United States' efforts to stay competitive in the broadband market. He and Blair Levin, who leads the FCC's broadband task force, have said the agency is considering reallocating spectrum licensed to broadcasters and government agencies.

It is unclear where the 500 megahertz of spectrum will come from, but a large portion will likely come from government agencies that do not use the frequencies efficiently. The FCC will have to negotiate with the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to reassign government frequencies. The White House and Defense Department will also be involved in discussions, sources said.

In its 2011 fiscal budget request, the NTIA said it "will collaborate with the FCC to develop a plan to make available 500 MHz of spectrum suitable for both mobile and fixed wireless broadband use over the next ten years."

NTIA added that it will focus on making spectrum available for both commercial broadband providers as well as for shared access by commercial and government users. 

An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment.

The plan doesn't completely satisfy cell phone companies. The wireless industry says it needs 800 megahertz to stave off a "looming spectrum crisis." CTIA, the wireless industry's lobbying arm in Washington, called NTIA's request of 500 megahertz a "down payment."

"CTIA believes it is critical that policy makers and industry continue to work together to try to identify additional spectrum -- as soon as possible -- for reallocation to meet the needs of the U.S. wireless ecosystem," said Steve Largent, president of CTIA.

Wireless broadband is a crucial part of administration's goal of expanding broadband access to rural, hard-to-reach areas of the country, where it is too expensive to run fiber lines.

Having a wireline network through phone and cable lines is essential, "but it's no less important to have a world class mobile infrastructure," Genachowski said Tuesday in a speech at the Brookings Institute.

The results of an FCC consumer survey released Tuesday show wireless communications have become a central part of daily life, with 86 percent of Americans owning a cellphone.

And 30 percent of American adults have used a cellphone or smart phone to access the Internet.  In both the African American and Hispanic communities, 39 percent have accessed the Internet with a cell phone.

Genachowski is expected to outline other parts of the FCC's plans for wireless spectrum in a speech Wednesday morning at the New America Foundation.