The last wireless believer has left the Federal Building

Michael Gallagher, the Assistant Secretary in charge of the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) is leaving. It looks like a bleak year for those who believe that more spectrum made available to the public will bring greater economic propserity and freedom of speech for all.

Most folks who follow the spectrum world look to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to sort things out. Few people know about NTIA. While the FCC regulates civilian use of spectrum and is an independent agency accountable to Congress, NTIA coordinates government use of spectrum and reports to the Secretary of Commerce (and, through the Commerce Secretary, to the President).

NTIA also serves as the advisor to the Executive branch on telecommunications matters (not just spectrum) and distributes a number of telecommunications related grants (mostly related to infrastructre development and critical infrastructure security).

NTIA’s great claim to fame (such as it is) in telecom circles is as the overlord of ICANN. For reasons way to complicated to go into here (you can read Milton Mueller’s excellent history on the subject for that), NTIA administers the cooperative agreement with ICANN to run the root and manage the domain name system. NTIA also administers Neustar’s management of .us and the 2nd level TLD.

When not dealing with ICANN, the NTIA Administrator generally uses the bully pulpit to push the administration’s telecom policies and develop ideas about it directly from the Executive branch. NTIA often files in FCC proceedings and issues white papers and reports. Larry Irving, NTIA administrator back in the 1990s, invented the term “digital divide” and put it on the policy map via NTIA’s reporting on deployment of Internet services and the demographics of internet access and use.

Michael Gallagher has been pretty much what one would expect from this administration. An avuncular speaker promoting the importance of broadband and the need for deregulation to make this happen. Under his tenure, NTIA also concluded that the digital divide was solved and, after the most recent “A Nation Connected” report, stopped reporting on the subject. On ICANN, Gallagher had a rubber stamp policy until the flare up over the .xxx TLD and the Tussle in Tunis, where he took the administration line.

So why am I sad he’s leaving? Because Gallagher, like Michael Powell, believed very strongly in the importance of wireless to our nation’s broadband and economic future. Gallagher promoted freeing up more government spectrum for industry use or shared use with the government. In doing so he pushed not just auctioning exclusive licenses, but unlicensed use as well.

With Gallagher’s departure, the last high-level true believer in wireless and advocate for spectrum change has left the administration. As I have written elsewhere, Martin does not view spectrum, either licensed or unlicensed, as a particular priority. Neither do either of the Democrats. While supportive of the promise of unlicensed, they have not pushed for new unlicensed spectrum in a high-profile way. Deborah Tate (assuming confirmation RSN) remains an unknown on the subject.

Without a high level advocate anywhere in the administration for spectrum reform, it won’t happen. The forces of inertia combined with active resistance by incumbents that enjoy the existing regime guarantee that little, if anything, will get done. What energy exists at NTIA and the FCC will more likely go to maximizing auction revenue than rethinking how to get the most “bang for the buck” from new spectrum technologies.

I and other will still push and educate. And much good will still be done with the existing available spectrum. Community wireless networks will still grow and flourish, and municipal wireless will remain attractive to many local and state governments that want cheap broadband for their residents and businesses. I also expect innovation will continue. Just last week, Vonage released its hand held wifi phone. This, in turn, will pressure cell phone manufacturers to make dual use phones, increasing the demand for open networks using unlicensed spectrum.

Ultimately, such pressure and demand for non-exclusive spectrum may once again force change. But for the first time since I began working on unlicensed spectrum in 2002, I have become doubtful about the ability to produce intelligent policies that have the potential to transform our society for the better by ending the artificial scarcity of spectrum.

Stay tuned . . .

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