FCC’s Enhanced Competition Incentive Program Uses Better Incentives, But It’s Still A Band-Aid 

By Jason Lee

Last week the FCC launched the Enhanced Competition Incentive Program , which the commission voted to establish in July 2022. The program seeks to incentivize spectrum license holders to provide unused radiofrequency spectrum to small carriers, tribal nations, and entities serving in rural areas. The goal, like countless other FCC programs, is to close the digital divide in unserved and underserved area.   

The ECIP joins the likes of the Universal Service Fund, the Affordable Connectivity program, and the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment Program in attempting to bring broadband to unserved areas. Unlike other programs, however, this one does not simply throw money at the digital divide – it provides non-financial compensation to licensees who voluntarily choose to participate. Licensees will not be at a distinct disadvantage if they forgo joining the program, which is usually the case for subsidy programs. 

The application to participate is managed by the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. To participate in the program, spectrum holders will “need to partition, disaggregate, or lease spectrum to better match available spectrum resources with entities that seek to provide needed services to under-connected communities,” according to the FCC. 

In exchange for providing unused radiofrequency spectrum, the spectrum holders will get the benefit of longer license terms, an extension of construction obligations, and more flexible construction requirements. By providing incentives for spectrum holders, the program will provide greater access to broadband for small, rural, and tribal carriers without further cost to taxpayers. 

“Deployment in rural areas can be challenging, so we created an innovative opportunity for small carriers and Tribal Nations to access scarce spectrum resources,” said Chairwoman Rosenworcel in a press release. “It’s a terrific tool to use—among others—to make sure we reach 100 percent of us with high-speed service.” 

The federal government also has a plan to free up wireless spectrum led by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. According to a news report by the Register, “President Biden [in November 2023] signed off a memorandum on modernizing US spectrum policy and establishing a National Spectrum Strategy, with the goal of improving management of wireless frequency bands to ensure the public and private sectors have access to the spectrum to deliver services.”  

Still, the Department of Defense and its allies in Congress are dead-set against the Defense Department freeing up additional spectrum for commercial use. As long as DOD, the biggest user of spectrum in the United States, jealously hoards its unused frequencies, programs like this will become increasingly necessary. Ideally, a good portion of DOD’s spectrum would be put on the market, which could generate billions for the Treasury at auction, enable hundreds of billions in economic growth, and reduce the need for stopgap measures like this one. 

The ECIP is a helpful step towards expanding broadband access to hard-to-reach and remote areas. Still, more work needs to be done to ensure all Americans have access to the internet if they want it. Hopefully, DOD will see the wisdom of privatizing more spectrum soon.