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"Renewal will not be pro forma in the future.”
Written by Dave Burstein   
Sunday, 08 May 2011 09:01

sesno-web"Use it or lose it," FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein advised for wireless licenses, which in the U.S. are generally given out for ten years but renewed without question even if the licensee is not offering much (or any) service. Germany is getting very close to 100% LTE coverage at virtually no government cost simply by requiring it with new spectrum licenses. Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom have publicized their "100% coverage" in unserved rural areas while telling investors the cost is modest. Since they can't roll out LTE in the major cities until after they've covered the "white spaces" on the map, they are doing it quickly. Result: Germany will have two and probably three LTE networks across almost 100% years before the U.S., despite the U.S. head start.

     Legendary FCC Chairman Newt Minow believed that broadcasters wasting the limited public airwaves should not have their licenses removed. "Renewal will not be pro forma in the future,” he warned in his Vast Wasteland speech. It's hard to determine what's "waste" objectively without trampling on the First Amendment, as Aaron Barnhart notes at the Kansas City Star. but it's easy to apply a similar condition on wireless licensees.


Wireless population coverage can be measured fairly accurately, especially with the $millions being spent on the broadband map. Both AT&T and Verizon are headed to 97-98% LTE coverage because it makes commercial sense, That's too much to require initially because it would discourage new entrants, but there's every reason to expect 95+% coverage at the end of ten years and perhaps 98% at the end of 15 years. 

    Verizon and AT&T are carrying $70B in spectrum as an asset on their books, much given them for free. They renew $20B or so every three or four years. The incremental cost of going to 99+% coverage is closer to $2B than to $10B according to their own trade association. If the FCC had the courage to require, the bells would be damn fools to risk such a large asset by not complying. Putting warehoused spectrum to use is an obvious response to a future crunch. 

     Frank Sesno, an award-winning reporter now teaching at GW, is hosting both Julius and Minow at an event 50 years after the Vast Wasteland speech.  He should have the courage to remind the current chair of what Minow believed 50 years ago, and ask Julius "If 98% LTE coverage is the President's goal, can't you achieve it simply by including it in license renewals after doing the proper notices? Why won't you do that?"