The government agency that supervises the communications industry should free up unused airwaves to make the high-speed Internet access market more competitive, the U.S. Justice Department said on Monday.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also should make it harder for big wireless phone companies to win spectrum auctions, the Justice Department said in comments it submitted to the commission.

The Justice Department's recommendations are among the comments that the FCC is seeking from the public as it develops a plan to make high-speed, or broadband Internet access available throughout the United States. The FCC is supposed to submit the plan to Congress next month.

The point of the plan is to make high-speed Internet access available to more people at affordable prices.

Making more spectrum available to small wireless companies would make prices more affordable and increasingly popular wireless Internet services more widely available, the Justice department said.

An increase in the amount of spectrum that firms could devote to broadband would lower the cost of providing wireless broadband services and encourage entry, wrote Christine Varney, the department's top antitrust regulator.

She called the scarcity of spectrum -- used for communications by everyone from taxi drivers to phone, TV and radio companies -- a fundamental obstacle that the commission should address.

The FCC is looking at ways to free up airwaves after auctioning more than $19 billion of spectrum in 2008. Much of it came from the shift to digital television last year.

Much of the spectrum that comes available goes to some of the biggest wireless providers. They include AT&T Inc and Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc and Vodafone Group Plc. Sprint Nextel Corp and Deutsche Telekom AG's U.S. unit T-Mobile are seeking to better compete with the others.

FCC officials have voiced concerns about a looming spectrum crisis because more people are buying advanced handsets that strain phone networks.

At the end of 2008, there were about 270 million wireless subscribers in the United States, including an estimated 40 million active users of mobile broadband, lawmakers have said.

We agree with the Justice Department about the need for more spectrum for mobile broadband, and look forward to reviewing their comments about the best way to accommodate that growing demand, said Mark Wigfield, an FCC spokesman.

U.S. military and intelligence operations might resist ceding spectrum for private use. Broadcasters also likely would fight FCC moves to reclaim airwaves for broadband use.

Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives have introduced legislation to get the Commerce Department and FCC to take inventory of how the U.S. airwaves are being used.

The department also urged the FCC to make it easier for consumers to determine which broadband provider gives better service, specifically by taking steps to close the gap between actual and advertised speeds. (Reporting by Diane Bartz and John Poirier; editing by Andre Grenon and Robert MacMillan)