Spectrum sales bode well for US innovation

Ask any American how they stay informed or how they communicate, and chances are you’ll hear about one of our oldest means of communications and one of our newest — broadcasting and mobile wireless. Whether it’s the national and international scale of our mobile voice and Internet networks, or the localism embodied by our nation’s broadcasters, these technologies provide Americans with the tools to engage with their neighbors and the world alike. This success is due in large part to boundless American entrepreneurship and ingenuity and one very valuable resource: spectrum.

Spectrum, the highly sought-after radio frequencies that make wireless communications possible, is a finite, and increasingly limited, resource. Although you can’t see it, spectrum has revolutionized our way of life, giving birth to the mobile communications movement. 

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Unfortunately, until very recently, there were no tools available at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or in the marketplace to efficiently move spectrum licenses from one use to another. Unlike modern, flexible-use licenses, older licenses were issued for specific purposes, like broadcasting or paging. What was needed was an innovative approach to spectrum use that recognized the value of a spectrum license in the right hands. We knew we had to transition licenses to flexible-use, and that is why in 2012, on a bipartisan basis, we worked together in Congress to authorize a first-of-its-kind incentive auction.

In authorizing this auction, Congress tasked the FCC with a complex undertaking. The commission was directed to develop a process that provides incentives for broadcasters to voluntarily part with their spectrum and make it available for auction to wireless industry. If done correctly, the incentive auction will give the market a chance to determine the right balance between the local broadcasting that is the cornerstone of countless communities and the mobile wireless networks that are bridging communities together. In addition to compensating broadcasters as they relinquish their spectrum, the auction will need to fund the relocation of those broadcasters who remain licensed after the auction.

There are promising signs of great interest on the part of both industries. Coalitions of willing broadcasters have been active in the FCC’s deliberative process, signaling their interest in selling. And earlier this year, the wireless industry again showed its willingness to invest in spectrum when an auction of government spectrum grossed more than $40 billion dollars — far, far exceeding expectations. That outcome bodes well for the upcoming auction.

Should things go according to plan, there is nothing but upside for the American public. A successful auction means consumers maintain access to the local broadcasting they have come to expect. In fact, because the auction is voluntary, broadcasting should emerge from the auction stronger than before, committed to the value and values of local broadcasting. Consumers will also see improvements in the wireless services that are increasingly central to our daily lives and our economy. More spectrum for wireless broadband means more bandwidth for everything from sharing our photos and videos to conducting business online. As our economy continues to grow on the back of wireless access to the Internet, additional spectrum will enable markets to flourish and encourage continued growth, investment and competition.

The commission is to be lauded for the hard work that it has put into the incentive auction, but now is no time to rest on its laurels. It’s crunch time, and the hardest steps are yet to come. The commission must continue to listen to policymakers and potential auction participants and continue working to ensure the best possible outcome for the auction. Maintaining a market for local broadcasting and producing licenses of the highest quality for auction participants should animate the commission’s work as we and the world learn and benefit from this unique experience.

This an unprecedented opportunity for the United States to, once again, lead the world in the innovative spectrum economy. Just as we pioneered the original spectrum auctions in the early 1990s, this auction has the potential to present the world with a template for accommodating new spectrum users in a way that honors the economy the licenses have created. While not everything about the way the FCC has approached this task has been well received — my personal concerns have been well noted — any successful outcome will bring benefits to every corner of the country. This is certainly something we can all rally around.

While we may not know what the future holds, if the auction is done right, it will surely be bright and exceed our wildest imagination — American innovation at its finest.

Walden has represented Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District since 1999. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee and is
chairman of the subcommittee on communications and technology.