- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2011

A leader in the wireless communications business is urging Congress to repackage unused spectrum space for mobile Internet devices — such as smartphones and tablet computers — by the end of the year to avoid stunting the growth of the booming industry.

“If we have four issues at the wireless industry, the first three are spectrum, spectrum, and more spectrum,” said Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association, in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times Monday. “We’ve got to begin to rollout more spectrum.”

Mr. Largent, a former Hall of Fame receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, talked about the growing demand for spectrum, the need for the government to stop targeting the wireless industry with what he says are unfair taxes, his concerns about net neutrality and his confidence that a wave of mergers won’t kill competition.

Speaking just hours after a pending merger with Google and Motorola was announced, Mr. Largent said the industry is as competitive as ever.

Spectrum is one of the biggest concerns for the wireless industry right now, he said, while holding an early cellphone to demonstrate how far the industry has come in the last decade.

As smartphones shift from being primarily calling devices to multimedia tools, spectrum is becoming more coveted. It allows carriers to offer more of these data services, such as Internet, video and music, at faster network speeds.

Right now, the industry controls about 400 MHz of spectrum, Mr. Largent said, but the Federal Communications Commission hopes to more than double that figure by adding another 500 MHz over the next several years. Mr. Largent said it’s a great start, but they’ll need more.

“Spectrum in the wireless industry is like a highway to the automobile industry,” Mr. Largent said. “As long as we have big open highways, then we can keep your devices running up and down those highways as fast as you want to go.”

The problem is finding enough spectrum to allocate to the emerging wireless industry. It doesn’t grow on trees. Instead, they’re lobbying the federal government to take unused spectrum from other industries and redistribute to the wireless industry.

“This is a voluntary auction,” Mr. Largent prefaced. “If you have spectrum that’s available, we need the spectrum. We’re willing to pay a lot of money for it, and we will reimburse you for that spectrum, if you want to put it up for auction. That’s it.”

But other industries, particularly the broadcast industry, aren’t very happy about the prospect of losing their spectrum, even if they do get paid for it. Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said the extra space is used to create better reception.

He said he hopes it doesn’t turn into a case of “eminent domain.”

“The question is if enough stations don’t volunteer to go out of business, does voluntary turn into involuntary?”

He flipped the table on the wireless industry, and said they have plenty of spectrum that they are not using, because they are waiting for the value to go up so they can resell it.

“People in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones,” Mr. Wharton said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Largent also complained about the unfair tax burden the wireless industry has to shoulder. Consumers are stuck paying an average of about 16 percent in tax.

“Let’s just call a time out on any new taxes that are wireless specific,” he said. “Don’t just look at the wireless industry to get more money.”

CTIA is backing several tax bills that would solve this problem. The Wireless Tax Fairness Act appears to be getting bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

CTIA also wants the 911 tax to be designated specifically for 911 service. “What we’re seeing happen in state after state after state is they’re using it for general revenue,” he explained. “The problem is when a state runs into problems with their 911 service and they don’t have any money left, then that’s going to be an issue for everybody.”

Mr. Largent said CTIA has a strong relationship with the FCC, but he disagrees with the regulator including his group in recent net neutrality rules.

“This administration has been really an advocate for the wireless industry, and the only exception I would make is the net neutrality rules,” he said.

“We argued and argued and argued and said we don’t need this applied to us,” he added. “The truth is they listened to us. They exempted wireless, for the most part, out of the net neutrality rules. So we’re pleased with that.”

• Tim Devaney can be reached at tdevaney@washingtontimes.com.

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