Fixing America’s ‘Invisible’ Infrastructure — The Wireless Spectrum


America’s wireless spectrum — that long-neglected part of our vital national infrastructure – finally is receiving much needed attention by the Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 

XChanges that are important for broadband modernization, however, could be short-circuited by Washington’s continuing budgetary mess. The changes also could become an unintended victim to debates surrounding the creation of a new, “5G” network. 

Citizens everywhere, especially those in rural parts of the country, have a stake in ensuring that neither contingency occurs.

Most of the attention paid to “infrastructure,” including by President Trump in his recent state of the union address, focuses on our physical infrastructure — bridges, highways, water systems, and rail.  Just as important, but far less noticed, is a vital but largely invisible component of America’s infrastructure — the wireless spectrum. 

Just like a concrete interstate highway, the wireless spectrum has a finite capacity. Sooner or later, only so many users can “ride” its frequencies before it becomes overcrowded, clogged, and eventually, unusable. 

Unfortunately, while a highway can be widened and more lanes added, the wireless spectrum used by broadcasters cannot.

There are only so many megahertz “lanes” or frequencies available for use. Because demand for space has skyrocketed in this digital age — with cell phones, social media, television, radio, law enforcement, 911 emergency systems, and more competing for signal strength — something had to be done to modernize the spectrum so it did not “collapse” under the weight of massively increased demand. 

These problems demanded the attention of the federal government, which controls the wireless spectrum in the “public interest,” and in 2012 the Congress responded appropriately, by authorizing the FCC to auction off large segments of the spectrum to private companies. 

The plan was that, through such a process, a significant amount of wireless spectrum would be made available to businesses that could then provide new and improved services to consumers as market forces dictated. 

This process — “repurposing” in government-speak — in fact accomplished its purpose when the auction concluded in March 2017; benefiting companies like T-Mobile, AT&T, and many others, as well as Uncle Sam, which took in nearly $20 billion and allocated $7.0 billion for “deficit reduction.” The process, however, was not without a downside. 

Costly upgrades are necessary for wireless broadcasters to modernize their equipment, realign broadcast channels, and incur other, related expenses. Congress in 2012 anticipated such a problem, and authorized $1.75 billion in what can be considered eminent domain reparations, so television broadcasters could adjust their equipment and facilities to operate on the realigned spectrum. 

Unfortunately, that $1.75 billion has proved insufficient for necessary infrastructure improvements resulting from the spectrum realignment.  Thus, nearly a thousand television stations — mostly locally owned — and more than 600 “forgotten” radio stations that use those same towers to broadcast their programs, are facing significant costs that the congressional planners failed to fully foresee nearly six years ago. 

In other words, an unintended, but still costly, unfunded mandate.

The potential consequences for American consumers, especially those residing in rural America, are severe. The Rust Belt relies on these local TV and radio stations for business, especially farming. 

Unlike the vast array of choices found in most cities, some local communities are entirely dependent on just one or two local stations. Consequently, without correction, the government’s spectrum reallocation would unjustly select winners and losers within the country. 

Fortunately, a bipartisan group of House and Senate members has addressed this shortfall by proposing legislation to allow these affected TV and radio broadcasters to use a small fraction of the auction’s profits for ensuring they can continue broadcasting on the new wireless spectrum. 

Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also has recognized that the Congress needs to authorize additional funding for these broadcasters so they can remain on the air. 

Leaders in both the Congress and the administration recognize that the only fair thing to do is to provide funds for this overlooked unfunded mandate problem.  Furthermore, the funds are there; in the form of the $7.0 billion “profit” the government realized from the auction. 

Unfortunately, what would appear to be a no-brainer could fall victim to the ongoing budgetary stalemate in the nation’s capital; and the waters in which these issues will be considered could be severely muddied by the recent debate about whether the government should be involved in the development of a new “5G” broadband network. 

Either contingency would indeed be a shame, as it would undercut a rare instance in which the government is trying to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time. And time is running out.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Investor’s Business Daily. Used with the permission of the author.

Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Bob Barr, represented Georgia’s 7th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 -2003 and as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986-1990.