New Jersey’s nearly 9 million wireless subscribers will soon exemplify the future wonders of wireless broadband, from remote education and health, to Internet-based entertainment and gaming, to the burgeoning “Internet of Things.” But that future could be jeopardized by a shortage of electromagnetic spectrum, the real estate on…Like the land that supports buildings, spectrum supports the experiences we get through our mobile devices. The signals that bring you Instagram, your favorite podcast, or, one day, cars that drive themselves and refrigerators that order their own food, need a “frequency” on which to travel — the “spectrum” is the range of all these possible frequencies. And just as we cannot create new land, the same constraint applies electromagnetic spectrum — the range of radio waves that can carry mobile signals — voice, image and data. Technology allows improvements in signal strength and compression that make better use of spectrum over time. But it is not enough. We are facing a spectrum “crunch” that will soon limit the growth of mobile broadband.
Mobile Internet today has overtaken fixed wireline Internet into homes, schools and offices. Cisco estimates that consumers demand for mobile data will grow more than six-fold between in the next four years. The number of wearables and connected devices in the U.S. will be double the number of smartphones by 2019.
This all leads to a considerable capacity shortage in wireless real estate that will only worsen. Experts predict the U.S. will need to increase its existing supply of licensed spectrum by 50 percent in the near-term.
We are facing this impending shortage because of the policies that govern spectrum supply and allocation. Will Rogers’ remark about land — “But land, they’re not making any more of it.” — also applies to spectrum, which means that, in order to find more of it, we need to see who’s using it now.
The Federal Communications Commission’s main effort in this area has been so-called “incentive auctions,” in which spectrum is purchased from users (such as on-air broadcasters) and repackaged and sold to eager bidders. The last such auction raised nearly $45 billion.
But while these auctions will help, they won’t fill the void. Following next year’s auction, there isn’t any new spectrum identified to bring to market. Alleviating congestion and building a sustainable path for the future will require federal legislation and the direct involvement of Congressman Frank Pallone and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. The most viable and concrete way to do so is the Senate’s MOBILE NOW Act, which would incentivize the government to better share or sell unused spectrum they control.
Government agencies have a great deal of spectrum — perhaps as much as 70 percent of the total — and it is not clear why they need much of it. The MOBILE NOW Act would dramatically increase the spectrum called for in in the Budget Act of 2015. It would then codify President Obama’s 2010 commitment to make 500 MHz — almost double the 645.5 MHz of spectrum currently licensed for broadband — available to the market.
The results could be significant on numerous fronts.
“Access to wireless spectrum opens the door for innovation and transformative new technologies,” said Booker this year. “It can help bridge the digital divide that leaves too many low-income communities removed from the evolving technology landscape.”
And just as the most recent auction garnered $45 billion for treasury, selling far more spectrum in the future would bring even more money in for programs that link our schools and medical facilities to the Internet and bring the world online. “From a fiscal perspective, this makes sense and always receives strong bipartisan support,” said Palllone.
But reallocating spectrum and deploying mobile broadband service is a long, technically complex process that takes on average 13 years. When considering that Congress will advance very few pieces of legislation during the 2016 election season, the urgency rises.
The guiding principle behind the MOBILE NOW Act is widely supported by both parties. Reports from D.C. indicate the measure could move in January 2016. But rumors and intentions are different than action. The next time you take out your mobile phone, you ought to wonder if the Congress is doing what it needs to do to ensure it will continue to work well.
Ev Ehrlich served as undersecretary of commerce for President Bill Clinton. He is a visiting fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Ehrlich is president of ESC Company, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that addresses economic and business problems. He has served as chief economist and head of strategic planning for Unisys Corporation, research director of the Committee for Economic Development and as undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton Administration, where he directed the interagency group on climate change economics.