The Great Spectrum Hunt: Why it’s Harder Than You Think

LAS VEGAS — Just some quick thoughts on a bunch of wireless spectrum talk that surfaced today at CES; while I will try to formulate some longer thought pieces on this subject I know that if I let it sit over the weekend it might never get done. So before Virgin whisks me back home some thoughts, reactions and instant-analysis from some policy panels I attended today at CES.

EVERYONE WANTS MORE SPECTRUM. BUT WHERE YA GONNA GET IT?. It would be hard to find anyone to disagree with FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, who reiterated his earlier claims of a “looming spectrum crisis” in this country’s wireless broadband marketplace. But even as Genachowski and CEA CEO Gary Shapiro talk about “bipartisan support” for a pending bill that would authorize the FCC to conduct an auction of spare broadcasters’ spectrum, don’t hold your breath for it to happen anytime soon.

In the back of the room at Genachowski’s speech some telecom insiders were talking about the chances of such a bill passing in the upcoming Congress — “the chances are zero,” said one large telephone carrier representative. Why? A lot of the broadcaster spectrum sits in the hands of rural providers, whose Congressional representatives rely primarily on over-the-air TV to contact consituents (and run re-election campaigns). City dwellers on both coasts may want to give up the “unused” airwaves so they can have more connectivity for their iPads — but the power and numbers right now are still with the rural opposition.

Plus: One representative of a rural broadcast operation got up in a panel Q&A and asked how small companies like his were supposed to compete with large carriers like AT&T and Verizon in an open auction. “Isn’t an auction just another word for a process that delivers more spectrum to the two big carriers?” he asked. There was some hemming and hawing but no clear answer or refutation of his claim. Some of the devil may be in the details and rules if such an auction ever takes place but if the Net Neutrality cave-ins to the big carriers are any guideline, don’t look for this FCC to take any radical stands for the little guys.

WHO WANTS CLEARWIRE’S SPECTRUM? AND AT WHAT PRICE?With the recent departure of cellular legend Craig McCaw from WiMAX provider Clearwire, the scuttlebutt around the spectrum/policy sessions was that someone would eventually snap up either all of Clearwire or maybe just its spare spectrum assets. But at what price? The longer a bidder might wait, the more the price might go down as Clearwire seeks funds to stay afloat. “The Clearwire spectrum is more interesting now since there’s some blood in the water,” said one policy insider. “The question is, is it a $700 million interesting or $2 billion interesting?”

WHERE WILL VERIZON GET MORE SPECTRUM?It was all happiness and light at the Verizon 4G LTE rollout, but when that slew of devices hits Big Red’s network — along with the forever-rumored iPhone — the consensus around policy panel attendees is that Verizon is going to need more spectrum, soon, to handle expected demand. Verizon execs this week said they are fine with their 20 MHz or so of 700 MHz spectrum for LTE, and they do have other assets for their current cellular customers that can be refarmed as users transition to 4G. But more than one person noted that right now mobile devices are far outstripping the networks’ ability to keep up. And as Genachowski noted “there’s no end to innovation but spectrum is a constant.” With broadcasters ready to dig in their fingernails to fight, could a Verizon-Clearwire spectrum deal be in the near future? Like 2011, the spectrum-crisis story is just really starting. Obviously it’s something we’ll be watching closely during the “year of 4G.”

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