Freeing Spectrum Ahead Of Wireless Demand ‘Tsunami’

BY Heather Greenfield
October 21, 2010

A day ahead of the FCC’s summit on wireless spectrum, several Obama officials spoke at a Brookings Institution event Wednesday about what to do about the looming spectrum shortage. The FCC is working to help free 300m megahertz of new wireless spectrum within the next five years, which is seen as a help. Many of the proposed reforms have been stalled both by resistance from incumbent stakeholders and by legitimate technical details to be engineered.

Phil Weiser, senior White House advisor on technology and innovation, noted that Smartphones are expected to outnumber regular cell phones by next year and video applications are placing tremendous demands on the wireless network.

Weiser described the growth in wireless traffic expected over the next five years as a “tsunami.” He said one key problem now is that even if a broadcast station wanted to sell its signal for use by cell companies, it is not legally allowed to do so.

The bureau chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, Ruth Milkman, said wireless use is expected to grow anywhere from 20 to 50 times higher between 2009 and 20114. With that growth, she said there is lots of spectrum that needs to be unlocked to be put to its best use. These polices are what makes innovation, competition and consumer empowerment possible, Milkman said.

Milkman said the challenge now is how to define a competitive bidding mechanism so that broadcasters compete with each other to clear unused spectrum. Broadcasters and the federal government would share the profits of these spectrum auctions and she said the government could use its proceeds for deficit reduction and/or public safety networks.

Administration officials say they haven’t taken a position on the airwaves known as the “D block.” There is debate over whether they should be auctioned off and then require companies to reserve capacity for public safety agencies or whether to give the spectrum directly to safety officials to develop a communications system on their own.

While panelists joked that spectrum is invisible, technical and often of interest only to tech geeks, the lack of spectrum impacts how most businesses and start ups fare in the marketplace and impacts America’s ability to innovate and compete in the global marketplace.

Steve Sharkey, chief of engineering and technology policy at T-Mobile, said the policies to clear spectrum are inherently a lengthy process. “So it’s been really rewarding to see the leadership the FCC and the administration has taken on this. They’ve put some stakes in the ground.”

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