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Earthquake Gives All Sides New Ammo In Spectrum Debate

August 24, 2011

A day after a rare East Coast earthquake jammed wireless networks, stakeholders on all sides of the debate over federal spectrum legislation found lessons to support their view on the issue.

Steve Largent, president of the wireless industry group CTIA, was the latest to enter the fray Wednesday, saying overwhelmed cell phone networks provide fresh evidence that wireless operators need more spectrum to meet the nation's surging demand.

CTIA favors legislation that would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to hold incentive auctions aimed at freeing more spectrum for wireless technologies. The hope is to persuade broadcasters and other spectrum holders to give up some of their spectrum in exchange for some of the proceeds.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved spectrum legislation in June that includes incentive auction authority, while a draft Republican House Energy and Commerce bill includes similar language.

"Yesterday's earthquake underscored the vital need for our industry to get more spectrum," Largent, a former GOP House member from Oklahoma, wrote in a blog post. "Yesterday, a huge number of users were trying to use the same highway at the same time, which caused the jam. With more spectrum, we'd have more lanes that would allow more users."

This view was echoed by Mobile Future coalition Chairman Jonathan Spalter, who told Tech Daily Dose Wednesday that the earthquake is another wake-up call alerting policymakers to the looming spectrum crunch facing the country.

Largent dismissed broadcasters' claims that television and radio are more reliable for communications during times of emergency such as Tuesday's earthquake.

"Despite the tremendous spike in traffic on wireless networks, millions of Americans across the country were using their wireless devices to contact their loved ones to make sure they were safe. They were sending reports through text messages, tweets or Facebook updates about the situation at their location," he wrote. "While television and radio played a role in helping to disseminate information to consumers, most Americans used their mobile devices to find out if their family and friends were safe."

The National Association of Broadcasters was quick to note Tuesday that while cell phone networks were clogged, broadcasters were able to provide viewers with information about the earthquake without disruption.

NAB, which has strong concerns with the incentive auction proposal, has been trying to make the case to policymakers that despite the rise of new technologies, there is a continued need for over-the-air television - and for broadcasters to keep the spectrum they need to provide such service.

"Policymakers debating spectrum policy ought to take note that the one reliable communications service during today's earthquake was the original wireless technology -- free and local broadcasting. It's easy to get dazzled by iPads and Smartphones, but all the spectrum in the world won't ensure reliability of the 'one-to-one' cellphone network architecture during an emergency," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said in a statement late Tuesday. "When there's a crisis, it's hard to replicate the reliability of the 'one-to-everyone' local radio and TV broadcast signal."

At the same time, public safety officials and their supporters on Capitol Hill also pointed to the earthquake as evidence of why policy makers should support their push for reallocating a chunk of spectrum known as the D-block for the creation of a national broadband network for public safety. They argued that in times of emergencies, first responders cannot rely on commercial networks and must have their own robust dedicated network.

The Senate Commerce spectrum bill would give them the D-block for such a network and authorize funding for building it. The GOP Energy and Commerce draft bill would maintain current law, which requires that the D-block be auctioned to commercial bidders.

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