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America's Broadband Opportunity: Today the Administration is Freeing Up a Chunk of New Wireless Spectrum

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This morning an opinion editorial co-written by Secretary Locke and Larry Summers ran in the Wall Street Journal. It explains the value of opening up additional wireless spectrum for innovation and economic growth.

Read the Ten-Year Plan, the Fast Track Evaluation, and learn about opening up more spectrum.

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Wireless Transmission TowerRarely is there an opportunity to simultaneously catalyze private-sector investment, help create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and increase much needed government revenue. President Obama is seizing just such an opportunity with his commitment to nearly double the amount of available commercial wireless spectrum over the next 10 years. Today, the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will take the first step by announcing a plan to free up 115 megahertz (MHz) of spectrum.

Spectrum is fast becoming a pillar of America's digital infrastructure. It has enabled the mobile broadband revolution. All of our smart phones, netbooks, and the "apps" they support depend on the availability of wireless spectrum.

But while demand for America's spectrum resources is increasing at rapid rates—the amount of information flowing over some wireless networks is growing at over 250 percent per year—there has not been a corresponding increase in supply. This congestion has led to more dropped calls and slower data rates.
Failure to relieve spectrum overcrowding not only threatens our economic growth, but our role as the world leader in wireless innovation. Many of our trading partners are already seeking to capitalize on their less-encumbered spectrum and are moving aggressively to expand in the wireless arena.

Expanding America's available spectrum resources requires the government to use its existing spectrum more efficiently, freeing up more of the spectrum for new uses, and also to provide the private sector with the incentives to transfer spectrum from current uses to higher-value ones.

In June, President Obama set a goal of freeing up 500 MHz of federal and commercial spectrum over the next 10 years. Much of this newly-available spectrum would be sold at auction to licensees. But some amount would be unlicensed and free for anyone to use. Unlicensed spectrum has spurred considerable innovation in the past, giving us technologies from WiFi to the cordless phone.

NTIA has identified 15 MHz that can be freed up by consolidating what is currently used for meteorological observation systems. In addition, NTIA has identified 100 MHz of federal radar bands that can be shared with private users in the areas of the country currently beyond the reach of the radars. Going forward, the Department of Commerce is working to make more and better spectrum available for wireless broadband over the next 10 years.

While NTIA's announcement is a significant step forward, the most promising spectrum for reallocation is currently assigned to commercial users, such as broadcast television stations and satellite telephone providers. Many of them are using it efficiently and, under the administration's plan, those who wish to continue will be able to do so. But the administration also is seeking legislative tools that will allow broadcasters and other spectrum holders to relinquish or share their current spectrum and participate in voluntary incentive auctions.

Users who give up spectrum would share in the proceeds from the auctions. The federal government's proceeds could help support construction of a nationwide interoperable broadband network for public safety, strengthen America's infrastructure, and reduce the deficit. This is a case where a positive-sum outcome is possible. We can put the spectrum to a more efficient use that benefits businesses, spurs innovation and job growth, and costs the taxpayers nothing.

The president's spectrum initiative not only presents a unique opportunity to catalyze innovation and investment, but is part of our overall strategy for sustainable economic growth and national competitiveness. Today's actions are important steps towards more efficient and effective government use of spectrum. But to capture the full potential of mobile broadband and the innovation and job growth that it offers, we also need legislative action to provide for voluntary incentive auctions by private-sector spectrum holders.

Mr. Locke is U.S. secretary of commerce and Mr. Summers is director of the White House National Economic Council.

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