Reaching our wireless potential

More and more Americans find themselves in a wireless world, communicating throughout their day at work, at home, or on the go.  As a result, wireless and mobile data use is increasing exponentially. That means that the demand for the nation’s finite spectrum resources --- the airwaves --- is greater than ever.

Whether we are using a data plan on licensed spectrum or accessing the web through Wi-Fi in unlicensed bands, we’ve all experienced the frustration of a slower connection. That is because the airwaves are overcrowded. In fact, Apple and Cisco recently released reports that found the 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi band to be overloaded and no longer considered suitable for mission critical communications. 

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Solving this problem isn’t easy.  We can’t simply create more spectrum, but technology can help us maximize its utilization. In the weeks ahead, the Senate Commerce Committee has an opportunity to advance a strategy that will ensure this public resource can reach its full potential. In order to do that, this legislation must include an aggressive proposal that will help us find ways to improve spectrum efficiency and make more capacity available for both licensed and unlicensed uses, like Wi-Fi. 

Legislation that will make more licensed spectrum available and facilitate deployment of supporting infrastructure is essential because it will give wireless providers the certainty they need to further develop their networks and offer innovative services to more customers.  Legislation can also help us maintain our international leadership in wireless communication by providing a stable regulatory environment that will foster next generation technologies such as 5G.

But while much attention focuses on how to make new frequencies available for licensed use, we need a clear plan to support the continued innovation in unlicensed bands. Our experience with Wi-Fi in unlicensed bands is the best example of the opportunity ahead.

More than 70 million American homes use Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet.  On average, each of these homes has eleven devices linked to that Wi-Fi connection. Wi-Fi is used in grade schools, on college campuses, by entrepreneurs, by businesses, by hospitals, and by communities around the country. This technology is an effective and affordable way for people from all walks of life to get online.

It is safe to say that Wi-Fi is the technology that Americans most closely associate with Internet access. Wi-Fi has also become an essential part of the nation’s wireless infrastructure through off-loading of traffic from licensed spectrum.

The unlicensed spectrum bands have empowered innovators to deliver millions of new products that we use today such as hotspots, wearable fitness trackers, Bluetooth headphones, connected medical equipment or industrial systems, and more. The goal of unlicensed spectrum is to inspire innovation by making it easy for engineers and inventors to use a slice of the nation’s airwaves to create the next new thing.  Innovation in unlicensed bands has flourished in part because companies do not have to spend billions for access to this spectrum; it is open to all innovators and has few regulatory requirements.  Who knew when the FCC made a few spectrum bands available for unlicensed use almost 30 years ago that Wi-Fi would emerge out of what was originally used for garage door openers? Imagine the innovation we might enable with more unlicensed spectrum in the future.

The impact of this technology for consumers and our economy is significant and its potential is unlimited. In fact, the Consumer Technology Association estimates that unlicensed spectrum contributes $62 billion annually to the American economy.

If we want to continue to empower consumers and provide entrepreneurs the space to innovate, we must continue to embrace unlicensed spectrum as a key part of our wireless strategy. It is the right thing to do for consumers and our economy.

Schatz is Hawaii’s senior senator, serving since 2012.  He sits on the Appropriations; the Commerce, Science and Transportation; the Ethics; and the Indian Affairs committees. Moran is Kansas’ junior senator, serving since 2011.  He sits on the Appropriations; the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; the Commerce, Science and Transportation; the Indian Affairs; and the Veterans’ Affairs committees.