The call for more wireless spectrum is growing larger now more than ever. As more and more people begin to utilize smart phones, tablets and other devices that rely on broadband connections, the current infrastructure will slow to a crawl. As it stands right now, there are now more wireless subscribers in the US than there are people. And yet, the crunch for spectrum continues, with only very small steps being taken to solve the wireless crisis.
President Obama, in his National Broadband Plan, called for at least 90% of Americans to have a high-speed Internet connection by 2020. The most logical way to meet this goal in a timely fashion is through wireless broadband. As the population grows, and more and more people begin to utilize the networks all over the world, the problem only stands to get worse. And it’s not just a problem in the US—many in the developing world will never even consider a wired high-speed Internet connection. The cost is too high for the infrastructure, and the computers used to connect are also not very cost-effective for many. They’ll use, and are using, mobile devices as their primary device to connect to the Internet. Wireless broadband will be an important too for connecting people around the world.
So how can the United States get more spectrum to increase the speed and capacity of broadband networks? Much of the available spectrum is currently held by television and radio stations, and they’re reluctant to give any of it up. Although less than eight percent of households still watches television over the air rather than over cable (and that number keeps falling), the television stations are worried about giving up this very valuable commodity – the spectrum. One solution that has been proposed, and has been implemented to some degree, is wireless spectrum auctions. Under this model, television stations would have an incentive to sell some of their spectrum (spectrum they received for free from the FCC). Indeed, some spectrum auctions were recently approved through the passage of the recent payroll tax extension. But as Larry Downes points out, the auctions currently being proposed are far from a free market, eBay style auction. The government would like to exclude some bidders if they feel they won’t use it properly, or if they feel the bidder already possesses too much.
Another source for freeing up more spectrum is the vast amount currently held by the government. Many in the industry have called for the government to speed up the disbursement of the spectrum in order to service the growing demand.
Wireless competitors have tried to deal with the spectrum crunch on their own, but the government is stands in the way. For instance, the FTC and FCC have also taken steps to block the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile, which would have given AT&T more spectrum to help build out its 4G network, making the network for both its customers and T-Mobile’s faster and more reliable. The loss of that merger could have a profound impact on the service and capacity of both AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks. Similarly, Verizon is attempting to utilize unused spectrum held by cable TV providers, but is finding government as a roadblock. In fact, there are many roadblocks to increasing the capacity of the wireless broadband networks. Most noticeable is the extremely slow moving pace that spectrum auctions are happening. The latest congressional action could mean that completion of auctions will take place as late as 2022!
If the wireless companies are to meet the goals set out by the Obama administration in the National Broadband Plan, its certain things would have to move faster. Secondly, the government has been very slow to both incentivize the television companies to free up their spectrum, and to free up the spectrum that it is currently holding. Both of these solutions rest in the hands of the FCC. It’s not clear how fast the FCC is willing to move to alleviate the growing spectrum crunch, but it’s a certainty that if the administration is to meet its broadband goals, they will have to move fast to implement some of the proposed solutions.
Zack Christenson is a digital tech writer for the American Consumer Institute and a radio news editor in Washington, DC.