FCC crunches numbers on spectrum crisis

The wireless industry is working to make devices and network gear more efficient, but that simply won't be enough to keep up with growth, says FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

The Federal Communications Commission is laying the groundwork for freeing up wireless spectrum.

Last week, the FCC held a workshop that examined the looming spectrum crisis. In a report published as part of the meeting, the FCC indicated that over the next five years, data usage will increase 35 times, compared to rates of today. While the wireless industry is working to make devices and network infrastructure equipment more efficient, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said last week at the meeting that it would not be enough to keep up with growth.

"Even if spectrum and device efficiency doubles, and the number of cell towers continues to grow at its current pace, we will need around 300 additional megahertz of spectrum by 2014," Genachowski said during a speech.

The FCC's technical paper looked at recent trends in mobile usage. The FCC's own data suggests that between the first quarter of 2009 and the second quarter of 2010, data use per individual mobile user increased 450 percent. This is consistent with wireless carriers, which have also reported heavy increases in data usage. AT&T, the exclusive U.S. provider of the Apple iPhone, has said it saw Internet usage grow 5,000 percent in three years. Clearwire, which is building a national 4G wireless broadband network using WiMax, has also said publicly that its mobile customers, on average, consume about 7 gigabytes' worth of data per month.

The FCC also said that today, about 42 percent of U.S. mobile customers own a smartphone. This is up from about 16 percent three years ago. The FCC expects smartphone use to continue to grow, thus fueling growth in mobile broadband.

For nearly a year, the FCC has been talking about the impending spectrum crisis and has been pushing for more spectrum to be made available. In the National Broadband Plan presented to Congress earlier this year, the agency outlined a plan for freeing up 500MHz of spectrum over the next decade, with 300MHz being freed up within five years.

The agency expects to get the spectrum from various places, including some from TV broadcasters, which are no longer using spectrum that has been allocated to them. Genachowski has proposed a voluntary auction in which broadcasters could give up spectrum in exchange for sharing in the profits of the auction with the government. The FCC report indicates that spectrum could be worth more than $120 billion at auction, which is twice what excess spectrum was worth in 2008.

Some critics of the FCC have complained that the agency is taking too long to introduce measures that would free up the spectrum quickly. They argue that the agency has spent too much time dealing with Net neutrality and possibly changing the classification of broadband to ensure its jurisdiction.

Even though critics say the FCC is moving slowly, the agency has begun to check off items to free up more spectrum. For example, it recently approved the use of "white spaces" spectrum. White spaces sit between TV channels, and the FCC has now paved the way for device makers to start developing products for this spectrum. The agency has also freed up about 25MHz from the wireless communications services and is working to make another 90MHz of mobile satellite spectrum available.

Next month, the FCC will begin examining how to free up more spectrum from broadcasters. Under Chairman Genachowski's plan, broadcasters would be able to share spectrum with other stations or return some of the spectrum for the voluntary auctions. The broadcasters would then be allowed to share in the profits of auctions.

The National Association of Broadcasters said it's still evaluating the issue.

The FCC is likely to open the issue up for comment from the public and the industry at the November meeting, during which it is expected to tackle other wireless-spectrum issues, including a measure that would help speed up the process for getting an FCC experimental-spectrum license. This would help researchers accelerate development of innovative uses for spectrum. The FCC is also expected to look at ways to ensure that unused--and underused--spectrum gets used to its fullest potential.