Opinion: New Spectrum Policy to Decide U.S. Wireless Future

By Rick Boucher

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Sometimes I can be a little spoiled: Yesterday's luxuries turn into necessities that I can't possibly live without. The cool new gadget that once amazed me becomes ho-hum, just another tool I take for granted. I expect the smartphone in my pocket to work anytime, anywhere and, upon the next upgrade, to be better and faster. But for smartphone users across the country, here's a warning: The future of the mobile device we love so much depends on policymakers in Washington and what they decide about spectrum. It's essential that they get it right.

Spectrum, the radio frequencies that enable wireless devices to talk to one another, is in short supply -- a spectrum crunch is upon us. The Federal Communications Commission now confronts some tough decisions regarding how best to free up more of this resource so our mobile phones and tablets continue to work the way we expect.

Congress sets national spectrum policy. Last year it gave the FCC the task of drafting rules to auction off underused broadcast TV spectrum -- "600 MHz spectrum" -- so that wireless carriers can continue to provide fast and accessible mobile broadband service. At the same time, in its effort to further wireless competition, the FCC is reviewing its existing "spectrum screen," the tool used to flag whether a service provider controls too much spectrum in any individual market.

Congress was clear on how the agency should approach these very different tasks. In the 2012 Congressional Spectrum Act, Congress directed the FCC to allow all financially qualified bidders to compete in the 600 MHz auction to maximize auction proceeds and to ensure that the carriers can buy the spectrum they need to meet customer demand. On spectrum concentration, Congress affirmed the FCC's ability to change its spectrum screen through its formal rulemaking authority that includes notice and public input.

Yet, the Department of Justice now appears to advocate that the FCC should ignore Congress' clear direction and instead approach these two separate activities through a single proceeding and in ways that would make the auction of 600 MHz spectrum more complicated and less effective.

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