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Opinion Pieces

‘Tis the season for spectrum reform

Washington, December 22, 2011

Consider this – during this year’s holiday season, nearly half of the web browsing done on smartphones and tablets will be conducted through Wi-Fi networks. As more people turn to web-enabled smartphones and tablets for shopping deals, retailers will be turning their marketing efforts to target today’s convenience-seeking, bargain-hunting shoppers that rely on their handheld devices. 

The key ingredient to making sure mobile commerce is up and running is making sure that the electromagnetic spectrum airwaves that carry our mobile traffic don’t get jammed up.  Think of what happens when crowds head toward the mall for Christmas shopping – the roads are slow moving. Similarly, if there is too much traffic on our mobile information highways, calls are dropped and phone applications are sluggish.

Currently, our mobile carriers are struggling to keep up with our skyrocketing demand to be connected at all times. Cisco estimates that the volume of U.S. mobile data will grow 21-fold between 2010 and 2015. This has caused experts to worry that the amount of spectrum consumed is soon going to outstrip supply. A spectrum crunch would mean wireless gridlock.

Such constraints on our mobile infrastructure are cause for concern because a wireless shutdown would halt the economy.  Arguably, maximizing our spectrum needs to be a priority for Congress as we progress as a high-tech culture. Mobile broadband connectivity will enable innovation for endless applications in business, healthcare, education, energy and more.

The solution to our looming wireless calamity is two-fold. First, Congress must authorize the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct voluntary incentive auctions. This will ensure airwaves assigned by the FCC are better reallocated to fit the needs of our wireless traffic.

Here is how a spectrum auction would work: spectrum license-holders, like a television station, would volunteer to relinquish their spectrum in exchange for a share of the proceeds from the sale. The public sale will stimulate innovation, economic growth and job creation. Some estimates show that incentive auctions could generate over 100,000 jobs and $15 billion in revenues, and a large portion of that money that would be used to help pay down our ballooning debt.

Another solution to avoiding a spectrum shortage is for the expansion of unlicensed use of spectrum in certain airwaves. Wireless local area networking, more commonly known as Wi-Fi, is the leading example of this technology. When we’re in a Wi-Fi “hotspot” we can access the Internet from our phone or laptop, without using the spectrum assigned to mobile carrier networks.

According to Credit Suisse, U.S. wireless networks run at about 80 percent of capacity, with more than a third of networks facing significant capacity constraints, and Wi-Fi is an important technology to address this overload. 

The Wi-Fi industry currently uses about 635-megahertz of spectrum, but the spectrum is broken up in a way that makes it hard for the technologists to enable the next generation of superfast Wi-Fi.  By opening up contiguous spectrum in the 5-gigahertz band for shared use, without displacing primary users, the FCC would be supporting a better innovation environment and maximizing the best use of a public resource.

Now is the time for Congress to act. If incentive auctions do not happen soon and unlicensed spectrum innovation is thwarted, our information superhighways might start looking like our roadways during the holiday season – packed and slow.

If Congress misses the mark with these two solutions, we risk not having enough spectrum for new devices to function in the upcoming years. 

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