Washington – Both sides of Capitol Hill, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held simultaneous hearings Wednesday, often hitting the same notes, as they addressed the central questions of broadband deployment and spectrum allocation.  The Senate hearing focused on barriers to the deployment of wireless broadband infrastructure and service, and the Senators and panelists often delved into issues of deployment in rural areas.  The House subcommittee focused more on federal spectrum policy, notably two bills, the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015, which is currently a discussion draft, and the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act of 2015, sponsored by Reps. Guthrie (R-KY) and Matsui (D-CA).

The Need for More Spectrum

It’s no secret that our society has become more tied to its smartphones, tablets, and other wireless devices.  With data usage skyrocketing, carriers will need more spectrum to accommodate the explosive growth.  Part of the problem is that spectrum allocation has not kept up as wireless networks have evolved to support the greater transmission speeds and higher-bandwidth necessary for Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) and applications with streaming HD video.  Members in both Chambers have recognized this spectrum crunch, and both hearings discussed ways to make more spectrum available to facilitate further broadband deployment.

Actions Up to Now

A number of markers for spectrum allocation and broadband deployment have been laid in recent years by Congress and the Executive Branch.  As the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s majority staff explained in its very helpful memo introducing its hearing: “In 2010, the National Broadband Plan called for the . . . FCC to make 500 MHz of new spectrum available for broadband use within ten years, with 300 MHz between 225 MHz and 3.7 GHz made available within five years.”  Also in 2010, a Presidential Memorandum directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to collaborate with the FCC with the goal of repurposing 500 MHz of Federal and commercial spectrum for mobile and fixed broadband by 2020.  Then, NTIA identified over 2,000 MHz for further study.  

Congress has also acted on spectrum allocation through the The Middle Class Tax Relief Act, which led to the incredibly successful AWS-3 spectrum auction earlier this year that attracted nearly $45 billion in winning bids.  That law led to the Broadcast Incentive Auction, which the FCC has scheduled to begin on March 29, 2016.  The FCC and NTIA are also supposed to look into unlicensed use in the 5 GHz band.

However, so far the FCC and NTIA have only reallocated or repurposed 245 MHz, falling short of the five-year goal from 2010’s National Broadband Plan and not even half of the ten-year goal.  With the AWS-3 auction now in the past and the Broadcast Incentive Auction coming up very soon, Members of Congress, federal agencies, and the private sector are trying to figure what can be done to address the ongoing spectrum crunch.  As Federal agencies control huge chunks of spectrum that could be used for broadband, the two major proposals have centered around relocating current government users to new bands and allowing federal and commercial users to share the same band provided there are rules for minimizing interference.

Two Bills Discussed in the House

The House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee hearing, entitled “Improving Federal Spectrum Systems,” focused on the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015 and the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act of 2015.  Congresswoman Matsui touted the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act of 2015 for providing a new approach to spectrum management and incentives for Federal agencies.  The bill would pave the way for a spectrum auction whereby Federal agencies would have the incentive of compensation through auction proceeds if they relinquish their spectrum for a commercial auction.  Currently, agencies can only be reimbursed for the costs of relocating to different bands or sharing their spectrum with non-Federal users.  The Members also discussed the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015, which would direct the FCC to produce a series of reports for the House and Senate Commerce Committees that would include draft service and auction rules, relocation plans for current Federal users in certain frequencies, and specific timelines for the proposed auctions.  The reports would also consider the use of licensed and unlicensed spectrum.

Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) called on his colleagues to pass legislation that would reform the federal system, create more predictable and transparent auction rules, and incentivize the repurposing of federal agency spectrum.  Subcommittee Ranking Member Eshoo (D-CA) similarly called for a spectrum pipeline with more licensed and unlicensed spectrum, but she noted that Federal agencies have exclusive access to 18% of most highly valued spectrum, and repurposing over 240,000 frequency assignments “isn’t an easy task.”  Still, she supports the Guthrie/Matsui bill because it would give Federal agencies a direct financial incentive to clear or share their existing spectrum.  Full Committee Ranking Member Pallone acknowledged the bills as a first step in authorizing new auctions.

The House’s panel consisted of Phillip Berenbroick, Government Affairs Counsel for Public Knowledge; Dr. Jeffrey H. Reed, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering from Virginia Tech; and Dennis A. Roberson, Vice Provost and Research Professor in Computer Science from the Illinois Institute of Technology.  Responding to a question from Congresswoman Matsui, Berenbroick stated that the incentives in her bill could be a useful tool but not a silver bullet.  Later, discussing the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act of 2015, Congressman Guthrie asked who should provide the incentives.  Berenbroick noted NTIA and OMB, but he imagined that the FCC would want to have a say in how the spectrum is later used.  Berenbroick highlighted the discussion draft for mandating that the FCC conduct forward planning to determine bands and what uses would go to certain bands. He said this would benefit stakeholders by helping them plan ahead for when certain bands would be up for auction.

Spectrum sharing was an important topic as Congresswoman Matsui asked Dr. Reed whether there are some services that are better suited to spectrum sharing than others.  He responded that a secondary user’s access might not be as reliable, but video could benefit from spectrum sharing because it is the dominant growth area, and its use is not as time-sensitive because the content can be stored up and accessed later from a device’s memory.  Dr. Reed also stated that delineating the boundaries for spectrum sharing or clearing would be controversial, but licensed spectrum has the benefits of guaranteeing quality of service while shared spectrum can be used for overflow from an operator’s network.  Roberson responded to Chairman Walden’s question about which bands Congress should consider by saying that there are large areas from 1-1.7 GHz that are currently used by some satellite and radar; 2.7-2.9 GHz that are used for weather services; and 4.2-4.4 Ghz that are used by radar only during landing and takeoff.  He noted that spectrum should be utilized carefully and suggested sharing, not clearing.   Dr. Reed stated that we have been more innovative in approaching this problem, but there will not likely be much green field spectrum below 3 Ghz, and it will most likely be shared.

Ranking Member Pallone asked about a WiFi dividend, for which he credited FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel.  Berenbroick said it applied to unlicensed spectrum use.  He said that unlicensed use can affect the development of the Internet of Things (IoT) and potentially billions of devices, but the economic benefits are somewhat underestimated.  Congresswoman Ellmers asked about unlicensed underlay, to which Berenbroick responded that it would allow for unlicensed use where Federal functions lie, noting that  a lot of fed spectrum is used intermittently, but also taking into account national security uses.  Ellmers also asked whether 5G would need to be a mix of low, middle, and high bands.  Berenbroick pointed to the FCC’s Mobile Competition Report, which called for a mix.  He said that for networks in rural and urban or intense uses, a mix is necessary.  Roberson also agreed on the need for a mix, saying that there is millimeter wave, which is new but has limitations.

Senate Discusses Broadband Deployment

The Senate Commerce Committee hearing, entitled “Removing Barriers to Wireless Broadband Deployment,” followed up on discussion from a hearing in July that also focused on wireless broadband spectrum policy and the decision-making processes of the private sector and government.  Chairman John Thune (R-SD) aims to use these hearings to inform more long-term broadband legislation that could develop later this Congress.  He held up his smart phone, stating it was “nothing more than an expensive paperweight” without proper infrastructure and deployment.  He advocated for opening more spectrum for commercial use because it can bring in more revenue but also lasting economic benefits depend on spectrum actually being used across the country.  However, this depends on infrastructure.  Ranking Member Nelson stated that deployment impacts competing demands and interests of tribal sovereignty, national security, environmental, and public health.  Senator Markey (D-MA) advocated for his bill with Senator Fischer (R-NE), which is the Senate version of the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act.

The panel consisted of Douglas Kinkoph of NTIA’s Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications; former FCC Commissioner and current President & CEO of PCIA – The Wireless Infrastructure Association, Jonathan Adelstein; Gary Resnick, Mayor of Wilton Manors, Florida; Cory Reed, Senior Vice President of Intelligent Solutions from Deere & Company; and Bruce Morrison of Ericsson.  Kinkoph described NTIA’s work providing grants for broadband projects across the country.  He also provided four key themes for recommendations and action items: “1) Modernize federal programs to expand program support for broadband investments; 2) Empower communities with tools and resources to attract broadband investment and promote meaningful use; 3) Promote increased broadband deployment and competition through expanded access to Federal assets; and 4) Improve data collection, analysis and research on broadband.”  Adelstein stated that without infrastructure, we can’t have wireless broadband.  He highlighted a PCIA study estimating that private investments in wireless infrastructure between 2013 and 2017 would generate nearly $1.2 trillion in economic growth and create 1.3 million net new jobs.  He also stated that Congress should speed infrastructure on Federal lands.  John Deere is universally known for its green tractors, but Cory Reed stated that agriculture is going through a high-tech transformation.  The company is pioneering state-of-the-art data and information solutions for farmers to increase productivity and sustainability – now farmers can get to the sub-inch level of accuracy for agricultural productivity.  He advocated for including cropland as a consideration for broadband coverage goals because people are the primary metric, but population can be disproportionate to economic impact.  Morrison stated that each Federal agency has its own processes and rules that are not the same.  Instead, he advocated for a simple checklist and “something driving the timeliness.”

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