iPhone, iPad bandwidth strains could lead FCC to pay for airwaves

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The U.S. Federal Communications Commission could pay network broadcasters to vacate their airwaves and offer more wireless spectrum as bandwidth-heavy devices like the iPhone and iPad become more prevalent.

The strategy could be a part of the in-the-works National Broadband Plan, due to be introduced to Congress in March. According to an FCC official who spoke with BusinessWeek, the plan could use revenue from airwave auctions to pay existing users to vacate.

"We know there's a spectrum crunch," the official reportedly said. "We are just trying to come up with options."

The introduction of the bandwidth-heavy, always-connected iPhone has placed a strain on the AT&T network in the U.S., where it is the exclusive carrier of Apple's handset. AT&T will also be the sole stateside 3G provider for the iPad, with a $29.99 unlimited plan available contract-free.

Last October, Julius Genachowski, chairman of the FCC, said devices like the iPhone would require new policies to be enacted because of a coming "spectrum gap." He said all signs point to there not being enough spectrum available for wireless services in the future.

The iPad is expected to only compound the issue. After Apple introduced the device and its 3G-enabled model that could access the AT&T network in the U.S., the FCC posted on its official blog that the iPad signals even more devices will be taxing the available mobile bandwidth.

"With the iPad pointing to even greater demand for mobile broadband on the horizon, we must ensure that network congestion doesn't choke off a service that consumers clearly find so appealing or frustrate mobile broadband's ability to keep us competitive in the global broadband economy," the FCC wrote.

Genachowski, who has admitted he is an iPhone user and fan, has been a strong proponent of Net neutrality, allowing users to visit sites they please without being discriminated against by broadband providers.

With Genachowski at the helm, the FCC has taken an active role in the wireless market. Under pressure from the government, AT&T agreed to allow Voice over IP calls via its 3G network. It also inquired over the non-acceptance of the Google Voice application in the App Store.

The FCC has also signaled that it wants to increase wireless carrier competition, and increase the availability of exclusive smartphones like the iPhone in rural markets where providers like AT&T do not offer service.