At stake in broadband push: Wireless spectrum

Underutilized wireless spectrum is expected to play a major role in a federal push for universal access to high-speed Net connectivity. Some proposals were outlined at CES.

Larry Downes
Larry Downes is an author and project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy. His new book, with Paul Nunes, is “Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation.” Previous books include the best-selling “Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance.”
Larry Downes
3 min read

Editors' note: This is a guest column. See Larry Downes' bio below.

While much of the technology policy conversations at CES concerned positive developments such as the imminent National Broadband Plan, one dark cloud appeared at every turn.

Nearly every speaker invoked fears of a looming "spectrum crisis" in wireless communications. Simply put, the faster that U.S. consumers embrace new mobile devices and services, the faster we will run out of available frequencies that can handle the increased traffic.

Wireless communications, including 3G and now 4G information services, have seen remarkable expansion over the last five years, as millions of users buy smartphones and use them not only to replace traditional landline service but, more and more, as a principal device for Internet access.

That's great for the wireless business and for consumers, but the problem is that wireless spectrum is limited. We can always lay more fiber-optic cable (and, in the future, whatever technology exceeds the capacity of fiber to carry bits) to carry wired transmissions, but there is only so much usable radio spectrum over which those same bits can be communicated wirelessly.

The White House and the Federal Communications Commission both believe that over the next five years, unless solutions are found, the demand for wireless services will outstrip the supply of spectrum. From the standpoint of the National Broadband Plan and the hopes for an information-based economic recovery, running out of spectrum could prove catastrophic. Wireless broadband is expected to play a major role in the push for universal access to broadband Internet services.

Several proposals to address this problem were discussed at CES. These include reclaiming underutilized or unused spectrum as, for example, the FCC has done in the transition to digital television. (Some of the spectrum broadcasters were using for analog signals has already been auctioned off for new wireless services.)

Now, however, there is talk of taking back more of the broadcasters' remaining allocation of spectrum, and of reallocating spectrum currently held by the federal government and, in particular, the U.S. military. In some cases, spectrum trades among those who currently control them may lead to more efficient uses of the most valuable frequencies.

Michael Calabrese, vice president and director of the New America Foundation's Wireless Future Program, believes that there is a great deal of unused and underutilized spectrum that can be tapped in the future. He pointed out that even in cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., less than 20 percent of the available spectrum is actually being utilized most of the time.

Other solutions are of a more technical nature, including software and hardware that make it possible and safe to share frequencies or dynamically reroute signals along unused frequencies. New technologies may also make it possible to effectively use frequencies that today are not suitable for carrying signals.

As a starting point, the FCC is calling for the development of a comprehensive spectrum map to identify the best opportunities to free up underutilized or misallocated spectrum. The creation of an updated map is likely to be a major recommendation of the National Broadband Plan.

Congress is already considering two bipartisan bills, the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act and the Spectrum Relocation Improvement Act of 2009, that would address many of the allocation issues.

The spectrum crisis puts additional pressure on the Obama administration to change the tone of its conversation with industry. In the development of new technologies for "smart" spectrum utilization and in the needed compromises to reallocate spectrum already assigned to some industry participants, more cooperation and less rancor will be needed. "Creative public-private partnerships," FCC chief Julius Genachowski said in response to a question about the spectrum crisis, "have to be part of what we do."

Redrawing the spectrum map will be complicated and political, requiring a steady hand and a gentle touch. While the White House and the FCC have evolved dramatically over the last year in their approach to regulating the Internet, it remains to be seen if the Obama administration can make the transition from campaign rhetoric to industry partner. Universal access to broadband Internet, and the fate of wireless communications, hang in the balance.