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Spectrum: The FCC's Lasting Legacy

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The advent of LTE and other "4th generation" technologies has led the demand for wireless services to explode, in part by unleashing the power of "The Cloud," which will make real the vision of remote, real-time, communication and computing. (The technology behind such marvels as the iPhone's voice-recognizing SIRI isn't new but having a wireless signal wide and strong enough to communicate with the cloud computers that power it is.) But meeting this demand for mobile broadband -- and fully realizing its potential for innovation and economic growth -- will only be possible with more electromagnetic spectrum.

To his great credit, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is making the spectrum crunch a top priority. The FCC's approval of the deal that lets Verizon purchase unused spectrum from a group of cable television companies is a good example of this policy in action. And the Commission's unanimous 5-0 vote to let the deal go forward underscores its commitment to supporting and driving innovation in the constellation of new industries -- devices, services, and apps -- that greater spectrum availability allows.

These decisions are good ones on their own terms, but even better ones when seen in the context of the FCC's changing priorities.

For much of the Administration's tenure, the FCC has dabbled with applying the tools of last century's telephone regulation to the data services industries of today despite a host of differences, not the least of which being the private, at-risk capital that powers the latter. Among these forays is the theory of "net neutrality," a doctrine that argues that on-line broadband was monopolized by a cable-telco cartel that threatened both free speech and the arrival of "the next Google." The way to undo this alleged knot was to regulate the Internet service providers - specifically, prohibiting them from offering consumers different levels of quality at different prices.

The FCC's dalliance with this idea of a "one size fits all" straitjacket for the Internet has dissuaded infrastructure providers while retarding innovations in such diverse areas as telemedicine, education, and entertainment that would rely on higher-quality connections. Sears offers its customers "good," "better" and "best" -- why not Comcast or AT&T?

But the Administration is coming to realize that the premises for this intervention -- the assumption of a monopolized broadband Internet -- are flawed. Innovation is burgeoning in broadband - particularly in wireless - where tens of billions of private investment pour in each year. Only last month, the Progressive Policy Institute pointed out, AT&T and Verizon topped their list of "Investment Heroes" by shelling out a combined $36 billion in 2011 to build America's communications infrastructure. Consumers continue to get more for less, and Americans consume more remote minutes than their foreign counterparts. All of these trends speak to the model of a competitive industry.

And the new focus on getting infrastructure in place is particularly important for this Administration and its world view. While many of its supporters are fighting the instinct to regulate, the Administration's agenda should start with extending access to the broadband Internet, with its attendant empowerment, to all Americans. Broadband -- and increasingly, mobile broadband -- is the way that people in the very near future will talk to health care providers and local officials, receive training and improve their marketable skills, start new businesses that challenge established ones, and find communities of like-minded people.

That's why the new attention to relieving the spectrum crunch is not only a good policy, but an optimistic sign that the Administration's telecommunications policy is moving in a truly progressive direction.

Doing that will require focus and resources, but there are no shortage of first steps to take. Most important among them are the classic "win-win" opportunities to be found while meeting the Commission's goal of bringing 500 MHz of spectrum to market by 2020. That includes liberating unused spectrum held by the federal government that can be repurposed for licensed consumer use. And it should include allowing spectrum now held by television broadcasters to be sold via open bidding.

Predicting the future of this country's fastest growing, most innovative marketplace is a difficult task. But if the Chairman is successful in bringing new spectrum to market and opening more channels for commerce and communications, his legacy will be assured.

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