Mobile broadband is growing at breakneck speed. By 2014, researchers predict mobile data consumption will be 20 to 50 times greater than it was in 2009. Without quick government action, the country could face a spectrum crisis.

The Brookings Institute sponsored a forum last week in Washington, D.C., to address the looming spectrum shortage. Experts from government, industry and academia outlined spectrum reclamation goals, potential strategies and obstacles.

“The growth in mobile broadband is astonishing. By next year, smartphones will outswamp regular phones,” said Phil Weiser, senior advisor to the director for technology and innovation for the National Economic Council at the White House. This growth, and its link to economic development, has focused Administration attention on the spectrum crunch.

“Spectrum is a crucial part of our innovation strategy,” Weiser said. “If we have a starved market for spectrum, we are starving this innovation.”

Weiser outlined the Obama administration’s four-part spectrum strategy, which includes:

  • Freeing 500 megahertz of new wireless spectrum in the next 10 years, with 300 megahertz of that to be available in the next five years
  • Using government-controlled spectrum more efficiently
  • Pursuing coordinated research and development
  • Facilitating the transition to a next-generation mobile network for public safety

Where whence will this spectrum come? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) believes broadcasters will provide 120 megahertz, possibly through auctions.

“Spectrum auctions are a way to create value and clear spectrum faster and with less disruption,” said Ruth Milkman, chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.

However, auctions will require substantial regulatory reforms, as broadcasters currently are prohibited from selling spectrum. Milkman hopes that providing incentives for broadcasters to turn in licenses, share channels or move from UHF to VHF will free spectrum resources.

The FCC also is eyeing mobile satellite services (MSS) spectrum as an underutilized resource. Like broadcasters, MSS providers are prohibited from selling their spectrum or offering terrestrial services over it. “We’ve been trying to get some terrestrial use out of that spectrum for 10 years,” said Steve Sharkey, chief of engineering and technology policy for T-Mobile USA, which intends to launch a 21 Mbps mobile broadband service by year’s end. Regulatory reforms could enable MSS providers to sell unused spectrum or share it with terrestrial services.

Use of some bands of the government’s advanced wireless services (AWS) spectrum also is light, Sharkey mentioned.  “There is a lot of opportunity to access spectrum when the government isn’t using it,” he said, adding that technologies exist to allow users to share underutilized spectrum on both a time and geographic basis.

Government agencies also will require incentives because they will need funding to test alternative technologies. “Industry will need to work directly with government users to make sure their needs are met,” Sharkey said, although he acknowledged this might be difficult. “There’s long been mistrust between government and commercial users.”

There’s no guarantee that the monetary incentives derived from auctions will be sufficient to free the desired spectrum, cautioned Ellen Goodman, a professor at Rutgers University Law School. “Twenty percent [of broadcast spectrum] is licensed to noncommercial users,” she noted, adding these entities have other goals besides maximizing revenues. “They might not respond to auctions.”

According to the FCC’s Milkman, once her agency has cleared some spectrum, it expects to repack broadcast channels so that there is a contiguous band of new spectrum available. Some broadcast channels may be switched to other frequencies at government expense.

– Jennifer Whalen

The Daily

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