Let’s Start the Decade Off Right: Expanding Unlicensed Spectrum Use and Unleashing American Potential

Step back from all the updates and alerts flooding your phone each day and think about how all that information gets into our hands. The data our favorite tech devices – phones, computers, tablets, smart televisions – transmit to one another are sent across airwaves, also known as spectrum. It’s invisible to us, but invaluable to innovation.

Originally, these airwaves were used by radio (and, later, TV) stations to transmit their broadcasts. But now, they hold infinitely more potential as the conduits of connected data, enabling communication for every technology you can imagine – from the smartwatch on your wrist to the fleet of sensors employed by a smart city.

The Federal Communications Commission and Department of Commerce are responsible for these airwaves, dividing them into frequency bands. Some bands the government sells to individual companies for their exclusive use, a process known as spectrum licensing. Others the government leaves open for any organization and device to use – bands known as unlicensed spectrum. It’s this unlicensed spectrum that empowers the innovations of today – AR/VR, drones, smart speakers; and those of tomorrow – artificial intelligence, telehealth and ideas yet to be imagined.

We know unlicensed spectrum leads to economic growth. A Consumer Technology Association report found unlicensed spectrum generates $62 billion a year for the U.S. economy, in part because of the exponential growth of devices that rely on unlicensed spectrum.

What started with spectrum-enabled devices including microwave ovens, garage door openers and baby monitors has expanded to include smart technologies such as phones and tablets – and today, more of us rely on these devices for information, access and connectivity. At the time of CTA’s report in 2014, smartphones were in 64 percent of American households; in 2019, they’re in 91 percent of our homes.

Technology fueled by spectrum is becoming an important education tool for teachers and students, according to CTA research. Some 90 percent of teachers and parents say technology gives students better access to education. And parents list laptops, tablets and web-based software as the most important tech devices for their children to use to learn.

Unlicensed spectrum is also critical to innovations still in their infancy. Telehealth allows patients to consult their doctors remotely, saving U.S. companies as much as $6 billion a year.

And a recent CTA study found two-thirds of seniors believe active aging technology – such as smart home devices that improve accessibility and remote health monitoring – can help them remain in their homes longer and live more independently. The active aging market will triple in the United States in just a few years, approaching $30 billion in 2022.

But without greater access to the unlicensed spectrum these innovative technologies use, we risk a longer wait to enjoy the benefits – whether that’s better communication with our doctor’s office, lower costs for our care or healthier lives. And while inefficiencies cost everyone involved time and money, rural and senior patients will suffer the most.

CES 2020 – the world’s largest, most influential technology event – is where you’ll find the latest innovations with the power to change our lives for the better. CES is always an exciting time for me, but also a reminder of just how much we stand to lose if we don’t support American innovation. International competition is fierce – our nation’s innovators need every tool available to thrive.

The FCC is now deciding what to do with 1,200 megahertz of spectrum. In late 2018, the commission proposed expanding unlicensed use of this spectrum, available to any device in the 6 GHz spectrum band – so-called mid-band spectrum that can help relieve congestion in nearby Wi-Fi bands, while protecting current licensed users. The agency will make a final decision in the near future – and the result will significantly affect our nation’s global leadership in tech innovation.

Many startups in Eureka Park at CES 2020 are here because they could harness unlicensed spectrum to develop their innovations. If we take the leap and unleash this resource, even more startups will be able to make their mark not only on the CES stage, but on the world. It would be an excellent way to start a new decade – a statement of faith in American ingenuity and creativity.

Every day, we get closer to realizing the life-changing potential of emerging technologies such as digital health, robotics, smart cities and self-driving vehicles. But we face limitations on how quickly we can bring them fully to life, from the vast – our own imaginations – to the finite – getting enough spectrum to fuel these innovations.

This year, we welcomed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioners Carr, O’Rielly and Starks to CES, where they came to discuss the most pressing policy issues the American tech sector faces – and see, touch and try out the future of tech innovation. I hope they and all our U.S. government leaders joining us at CES will take this opportunity to support America’s innovators.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. His views are his own.

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