Bush Announces Spectrum Management Overhaul

Yesterday president Bush issued a “Memo on Spectrum Policy,” which sets the stage for a fundamental reform of the way radio spectrum is used and managed in the United States. With the establishment of this “Spectrum Policy Initiative” the White House hopes to “unlock the economic value and entrepreneurial potential of U.S. spectrum assets while ensuring that sufficient spectrum is available to support critical Government functions.”
Claiming that “the existing spectrum [management] process is insufficiently responsive to the need to protect current critical uses,” the Memo outlines several tasks to begin immediately, involving the cooperation of more than a dozen government departments and agencies.
The effort will be headed up by the Department of Commerce and has two major goals: the first is to basically examine and overhaul the way the government uses spectrum for its own purposes. This sounds like a process of inventory-taking and, possibly, a whittling-away of some spectrum currently claimed for government use that sits mostly unused. This “freed” spectrum will likely be auctioned off to the highest bidder, ostensibly to allow for things like more wireless network traffic capacity.
The second goal is somewhat nebulous at this point, but based on what we do know the potential implications could be huge. A task force will hold a series of public hearings to collect input on ideas for reforming spectrum management policies. The FCC has already produced a set of recommendations calling for a market-driven spectrum regulatory policy, which could conceivably do away with allocations as we know them today and divvy up spectrum use based on the technologies most heavily backed by consumer demand. The broadcast media’s conversion to digital signals is a step toward this convergence which has until recently been bandied about as a futurist’s buzz word. It is very real, and with this presidential directive it appears to be moving toward implementation.
One of the interesting points outlined in an accompanying “fact sheet” is the White House’s desire to eventually see the FCC gain the authority to set “user fees on unauctioned spectrum licenses.” The Telecom Act of ’96 requires that all commercial spectrum licenses be awarded by auction, and non-commercial licenses be given away for free. This formula both makes money for the Treasury and encourages the creation (if not exactly the flourishing) of some balancing non-commercial use of the spectrum.
Bush and his crew want to change all that. Whereas license-holders for commercial spectrum applications pay once to “own” it, a “user fee” system implies the charging of rent. Many non-commercial spectrum license-holders are non-profit as well (any community or public radio station, for example), and they don’t bask in substantial revenues. Amateur radio is by its very nature not engaged in making money. If all of these users must pay to play, what will the impact be? The answer is certainly worse off than we are now, and this is only one small policy change compared to the scale of reform outlined by the president’s initiative.
What the FCC did on June 2 affected only some of what the spectrum is used for – radio and television are only a small fraction of the electromagnetic energy flying around our atmosphere. The White House is talking about the whole enchilada: managing the entire spectrum based on the tenet of economic viability and national security, throwing public interest, convenience and necessity out the window.
Perhaps that is why the FCC has not been given a lead role in this project; it is “encouraged” to participate in some of the activities, but it is not being given authority over this overhaul. That lies with its parent, the Department of Commerce. Perhaps the public backlash to the FCC’s recent vote played into this decision – the FCC obviously wasn’t very receptive to public input, but it’s small fry compared to the bureaucracy of a Department of the Executive Branch.
If you believe (as I do) that the size of a bureaucracy is proportional to its deafness and resistance to change, the authority structure Bush has created here is pretty scary, as it will further insulate this process from the public. The president wants spectrum management policy recommendations on his desk in 12 months, so the entire debate will be telescoped into an uncomfortably short window. For his part, FCC Chairman Mikey Powell is applauding the initiative like a good lackey should, even though his agency has been politically dissed pretty hard.