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The New Obama Spectrum Doctrine

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, June 28 2010

This is somewhat outside our bailiwick here, but President Obama issued a pretty major tech policy memorandum earlier today laying out his ten-year plan to free up some 500 megahertz of public radio spectrum that could, the thinking goes, be used to build out robust digital connectivity across the country. Radio spectrum is a public resource, managed by the federal government on behalf of the American people, and spectrum reform advocates argue that we could be doing a much better job of using that resource to actually benefit the public -- including through using it to connect Americans to high-speed broadband in places where geography can make wired connectivity impractical.

Obama titled the plan, "Unleashing the Wireless Broadband Revolution.", and National Economic Counci Director Larry Summers was sent over to the New America Foundation to sell the plan for the Administration earlier today.

Dow Jones' Jared Favole has more here. In brief, the major deal is that Obama is laying out a decade long timetable for reclaiming a considerable chunk of the wireless spectrum for new and improved uses. One element of that proposal, and one which puts Obama in the position of being a strong reformer of federal operations (whether or not the rest of the executive branch is all that happy about it), is that agencies have to finally fess up about just what parts of the radio spectrum they have, and what of it they aren't using. A 2006 Government Accountability Office report on spectrum reform (pdf) critiqued the lack of competitive pressures on government entities to justify their possession of spectrum bands. Or, to put it another way, government might be biting off more spectrum than they can use simply because they don't have to pay for it.

Obama's announcement is closely tied to the Federal Communications National Broadband Plan, released in March, particularly where it calls for spectrum "auctions" to shift spectrum from its currently licensees to new uses and new users. (Related: The FCC's new online Spectrum Dashboard.) Incumbent media and communications companies have much at stake, and so there's a considerable amount of money involved. Passions are running high, and so the Obama administration's commitment to transparency is likely going to face a test.

Following his speech this afternoon, Summers was asked to comment on complaints that the Obama Administration's approach to net neutrality and other broadband regulation matters has already exhibited signs of secrecy. Would Summers commit on behalf of the relevant agencies to executing complete transparency as spectrum reform rolls along?

This not being Summers first time behind the podium, he demurred. "I have learned that the correct answer to questions of form, 'Will you right here make a commitment on behalf of the Administration?,'"said the former Harvard president, "is to not agree with the questioner." But, in general, Summers argued, the Obama Administration is committed to making as transparent as possible the ten year process the President has laid out for reforming how the United States stewards its radio spectrum.

The first milestone called for in the new Obama spectrum reform policy is for the Federal Communications Commission to present a detailed road map for moving ahead by October 10th of this year.