NPR logo FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Says More Wireless Spectrum Is Major Goal


FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Says More Wireless Spectrum Is Major Goal

The new smart phones, tablets and connected TVs are going to need a lot more bandwidth than we've got, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told a room packed with the people who are making all those new bandwidth-gobbling gadgets.

Genachowski did an onstage interview with Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. At the beginning of the talk, Shapiro asked anyone who had wireless connection struggles with their smart phones while at CES to raise their hand. Everyone's hand went up.

Genachowski took note and stressed that in 2011 one of his main goals is to increase the amount of wireless spectrum available to Americans. The chairman foresees a 35-fold increase in mobile broadband use over the next five years.

It isn't surprising that the 126,000 CES attendees are having problems downloading video, checking websites and communicating over wireless. As we increasingly use wireless devices to stream movies and video, it is going to strain the current wireless infrastructure.

Although watching movies on your cell phone isn't exactly a human right, Genachowski believes that unless the U.S. increases the availability of wireless spectrum, there will be "disastrous consequences." Genachowski and the Obama administration have long maintained that we need to build out our broadband infrastructure if we are going to keep jobs from leaving the U.S.

A Controversial Proposal

One of Genachowski's main plans for increasing wireless capacity is to auction off spectrum that is no longer being used by television broadcasters, who recently switched to digital signals. He is seeking congressional approval for a plan that would ask the broadcasters to voluntarily give up their spectrum licenses in exchange for a cut of the auction profits.

But broadcasters aren't happy about giving up any of their spectrum. They say they need it to serve audiences who still get television over the air, the old-fashioned way. But Genachowski says the number of people getting TV that way is down to less than 10 percent of Americans.

CEA President Shapiro asked Genachowski why broadcasters should get a portion of the proceeds from an auction of spectrum when the broadcasters don't own it. The spectrum is licensed to them — that's your local TV station — by the federal government. Genachowski said he wanted a plan that "would get bipartisan support."

Genachowski, an Obama appointee, was asked later by reporters if he thought he was going to have a lot of battles to fight over his voluntary auction plan now that Republicans have more power in Congress. He didn't answer directly but said that there is bipartisan support for getting the country wired up.

However, it's clear from the chairman's proposal to give some of the proceeds from the wireless spectrum auction to old-time broadcasters that he is trying to navigate some tricky ground.