It’s Time to Take Another Look at the Wireless Spectrum Reallocation Process

Forget love or money. These days, the wireless spectrum makes the world go ’round. And over the past several years, I’ve become convinced that the current process for reallocating spectrum to commercial providers poses a serious threat to progress and innovation in the U.S.

Wireless Spectrum Allocation: A Decade Is Way Too Long

You can’t see it or touch it, but you interact with the wireless spectrum dozens of times a day. Whenever you shop on Amazon or stream a movie on Netflix or check your account balance, you access the spectrum — the range of frequencies that transmit data, video and sound to smartphones and TVs.

The federal government controls 60-70 percent of the spectrum available for wireless broadband. Historically, much of it has been used to transmit TV signals. But with demand for wireless bandwidth growing in leaps and bounds, the federal government is gradually reallocating spectrum to commercial wireless providers.

The problem is that reallocation is happening much too slowly and the process is riddled with inefficiencies.

Consider this: According to a CTIA Analysis, it takes 13 years or more for wireless spectrum to be deployed to consumers after the FCC issues a reallocation order.

That’s way too long. Spectrum is a limited resource, and the reallocation of spectrum supply is falling behind the demand for wireless service — demand that will only continue to increase going forward.

What’s at Stake in the Wireless Spectrum Reallocation Process? Everything

When President Obama appointed me to the U.S. National Broadband Task Force (part of the FCC), I was asked to leverage my knowledge and experience as a wireless spectrum expert to help clarify global broadband policies, regulations and best practices. Part of my job also involved creating a national plan to guide broadband initiatives.

The National Broadband Plan (released by the FCC in 2010) provided a roadmap for the use of broadband to achieve economic growth and improve the nation’s capabilities across a range of sectors and industries.

The current process for the reallocation of wireless spectrum to commercial providers jeopardizes these initiatives and limits our potential in several key areas, including:

  • Technological Innovation – From self-driving cars and drones to artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we’re on the verge of some amazing innovations in technology — and all of them depend on the wireless spectrum. The marketplace is powered by innovation and it moves at the speed of light. We can’t afford inefficiency in spectrum reallocation because we need innovation to create economic growth.
  • Educational Opportunities – Technology is becoming a fundamental part of education in the U.S. Online and distance-learning initiatives are providing opportunities to a broader cross-section of the population, often at much lower costs than traditional programs. Wireless and mobile technologies feature prominently in the changing educational scene and it’s safe to say that education will require additional spectrum to reach its full potential.
  • Health Care – Wireless technology has improved patient care and made the health care industry much more efficient than it used to be. At a time when health care costs account for more than 17 percent of U.S. GDP, it seems obvious that we need to double-down on the use of technology in health care settings and provide enough spectrum to accommodate innovations that further improve efficiency and quality of care.

The futures of many other sectors (e.g., energy and public safety) also hinge on the expansion of the wireless spectrum. But my point is that there’s simply too much at stake to let process inefficiencies derail or delay the deployment of wireless spectrum for consumer use.

Wireless Spectrum: Where Do We Go From Here?

Recently, the FCC initiated a process to auction off the 600 MHz band. That’s important because it’s a low-band spectrum that will help carriers keep up with wireless demand. It’s also believed that this chunk of the spectrum will play a role in carriers’ ability to deliver super-fast 5G speeds in the years ahead.

But while the current auction is a positive development, it’s not enough. We need a new plan to reallocate as much of the spectrum as possible to wireless providers and those who can do the most with wireless spectrum. Just as importantly, we need to find ways to make the process more efficient and more responsive to the needs of the fast-evolving wireless marketplace.

And I think we can all agree that we need it now.

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