By Mike Wendy
September 15, 2016 at 5:00 am ET
Over two-thirds of Americans have a smartphone. This affordable, powerful and convenient technology has revolutionized how we communicate with the world like no other technology before it. But its popularity has put tremendous pressure on the wireless networks that make those phones (and other mobile technology) work, too.
You see, mobile technology is limited by finite, wireless spectrum over which its services ride. Yet, unlike other resources, access to that spectrum is strictly controlled by the federal government. And, Uncle Sam jealously guards that resource like his life depends on it.
This must change if our networks are to evolve to meet near ceaseless demand. And it can – that is, if regulators are smarter about unleashing spectrum, including even sharing it with commercial providers when appropriate.
There are nearly 380 million wireless subscriptions in America. Over 230 million of these are for data-hungry smartphones. And, boy, are they busy. A single smartphone can generate nearly as much traffic as 50 traditional cellphones. By 2019, projections show that mobile data traffic, caused in no small measure by smartphones, will have increased seven-fold over 2014 volumes. All agree this growth trajectory will not abate. It will be driven by new users (including “things”), more connections per user and increased demand for higher speeds to accommodate data-hungry apps such as mobile video.
Consequently, by 2019 America will need more than 50 percent more licensed broadband spectrum than what’s currently out there to keep our wireless networks working smoothly.
But, usable “greenfield” spectrum is hard to come by.
Over the past five years, the spectrum pipeline – which is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission – has delivered little more than 20 percent of net new commercial spectrum the federal government set out to release back in 2010 with its National Broadband Plan. Though the FCC is working to auction off TV spectrum for mobile broadband uses, Uncle Sam still holds about 60 percent of the spectrum that is best suited for mobile broadband services.
Demand is clearly on pace to outstrip government-constricted supply. But thankfully, an innovative new proposal by Ligado Networks has emerged that could help alleviate some of that crunch and set an example for others to follow in the future.
The plan, endorsed by a diverse group of industry and public interest organizations, asks the FCC to repurpose a slice of government allocated spectrum – the 1675 and 1680 MHz band – for shared commercial use. The proposal urges that these frequencies be auctioned off, and then rules be developed for sharing that band with the current government tenant – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – which uses that spectrum to get weather and atmospheric data.
This will benefit all stakeholders.
Changing the use of that band will help accommodate the explosive growth of mobile broadband. As one industry commenter put it, the plan represents an important “opportunity to repurpose more spectrum for mobile broadband use and spur additional investment, innovation and competitive forces in the broadband marketplace.” In short, it will be key toward building the next generation of mobile services – such as 5G – and the ecosystem needed to support that deployment.
Moreover, it will benefit our economy and society at large. It will foster and grow the nearly $400 billion in direct economic activity the mobile industry creates annually, as well as add onto already present consumer welfare gains from wireless services, which some analysts currently estimate to be as high as $10 trillion.
Added to this, it would open up NOAA data to more users and deliver it through a new content delivery network. According to Ligado, it “will not cost NOAA a penny, and…will also be free to schools and libraries,” entities that, for the most part, don’t receive that data today.
Finally, if the proposal goes as planned, it could be used as a model for other spectrum sharing programs with the government, potentially opening up the spectrum spigot for new and innovative mobile technologies of the future.
In 2010, the National Broadband Plan urged the United States to “lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.” To get there, the plan called on policymakers to “[e]nsure efficient allocation and management of assets [that the] government controls…such as spectrum…to encourage network upgrades and competitive entry.”
The Ligado proposal could play an integral role in meeting those goals. The FCC would be smart to work toward adopting it.
Mike Wendy is president of Media Freedom, a market-oriented, nonprofit organization.
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