The Obama administration is calling on federal regulators to make more radio spectrum available for wireless Internet services so they can compete with broadband plans provided by the major phone and cable companies.
Lawrence Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission on Monday that wireless connections offer the best hope for injecting new competition into the duopoly market for broadband services in the United States.
The NTIA, an arm of the Commerce Department, offered its input as the FCC drafts a plan for bringing affordable high-speed Internet access to all Americans. That plan, mandated by last year's stimulus bill, is due next month.
The NTIA letter draws heavily on a Justice Department analysis of the state of competition in the broadband market, which was filed with the FCC on Monday.
That analysis says it is premature to know whether next-generation, wireless services will be fast enough and reliable enough to become a viable alternative to offerings from phone and cable companies.
But the Justice Department warns that the high cost of building such wire-based networks means there will likely be limited competition — with at most two choices and, in many places, just one service fast enough to handle applications that require a lot of bandwidth.
Finding more radio spectrum for wireless Internet connections is therefore "a primary tool for promoting broadband competition," Strickling wrote in the NTIA letter.
The NTIA's recommendations to the FCC include exploring ways to make more efficient use of the airwaves — for instance, by developing new access technologies and encouraging users to share spectrum — and examining whether to reallocate spectrum now in the hands of other commercial and government users.
The FCC is already considering reallocating some frequencies held by television broadcasters, which have mounted an aggressive campaign to hang onto their spectrum. Wireless companies are also eyeing bands used by satellite-communications companies and federal agencies such as the Pentagon.
The industry is asking the government to make an additional 800 megahertz of spectrum available to license to wireless companies for voice and data services over the next six years. That would be a huge expansion from the industry's current slice of roughly 500 megahertz.
Ben Scott, policy director for the public interest group Free Press, said the Obama administration's analysis of the broadband sector offers a "sober portrait" of an industry with very limited competition. Free Press, for one, is urging federal policy makers to consider forcing big telecom companies to share their networks with rivals — an approach played down in the NTIA letter.
Still, Strickling said, the administration is committed to finding "the proper balance between regulation and market forces in the Internet environment."