Spectrum crisis, maybe; spectrum reform, absolutely

Over the past year, there has been growing concern about a looming radio spectrum crisis. And it’s not without reason — there has been an explosion of growth and innovation with spectrum-based services over the past decade. In particular, the cellular industry has been a prominent driver of this expansion. There are more than 276 million wireless subscribers in the U.S., and American consumers use more than 6.4 billion minutes of airtime per day.

While the foundation for wireless services has been voice communication, more subscribers are utilizing it for broadband. According to the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of adult Americans have accessed the Internet via a wireless device. And ABI Research forecasts there will be 150 million mobile broadband subscribers by 2014, a 2,900 percent increase from 2007. Spectrum is so important that the Federal Communications Commission has made it a major focal point of its recently released National Broadband Plan and a priority to find additional spectrum for wireless broadband.

There are constraints, however — spectrum is a finite resource — and we cannot manufacture new spectrum. Making matters worse, the government’s spectrum management framework is inefficient and has not kept up with technological advancements. As evidence, the Government Accountability Office, in a series of reports, concluded, “the current structure and management of spectrum use in the U.S. does not encourage the development and use of some spectrum-efficient technologies.” Also, several studies have observed low-spectrum occupancy rates or usage. So if spectrum isn’t being used 100 percent of the time, it isn’t a crisis; we just need more effective management.

I very much share these serious concerns and it’s why I’ve made spectrum policy reform a priority. Last year, I introduced with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act (S. 649). This important legislation directs the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to create a comprehensive inventory of spectrum bands. While the FCC’s National Broadband Plan makes several recommendations related to spectrum, the first step that is necessary is a thorough inventory to provide federal decision-makers with a clear, detailed and up-to-date understanding of how spectrum is currently being used and by whom — such data is essential to sound policy decisions.

I’ve also written FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski encouraging the commission to address pending spectrum proceedings as part of its effort to establish a National Broadband Plan. The FCC has several outstanding rulemakings that appear ready for decisions that could enable the quick rollout of additional spectrum to meet near- to mid-term demand for commercial wireless broadband services. I’m pleased that the chairman agrees with me and included these proceedings in the National Broadband Plan. Promptly concluding these proceedings will quickly put valuable spectrum resources to use for the American people.

But an inventory and concluding unresolved proceedings will only get us so far. That is why I intend to introduce comprehensive spectrum reform legislation in the coming weeks to modernize policy and fix fundamental deficiencies in our nation’s radio spectrum management and coordination activities. Taking this corrective action will allow us to meet the future telecommunications needs of all spectrum users. For consumers, these fixes will lead to additional choices, greater innovation, lower prices and more reliable services.

Specifically, this legislation will task the FCC and NTIA to perform much-needed spectrum measurements to determine actual usage and occupancy rates. This data is fundamental to determining utilization metrics for different wireless services so that policymakers and the public can make informed decisions about future spectrum uses. Also required is a cost-benefit analysis of spectrum relocation opportunities to move certain incumbent users and services to more efficient spectrum bands. Many legacy wireless services could employ newer technologies to provide more efficient use of spectrum.

In addition, my bill requires greater collaboration between the FCC and NTIA on spectrum policy and management-related issues, implementation of spectrum sharing and reuse programs, as well as more market-based incentives to promote efficient spectrum use. It also sets a deadline for the creation of the National Strategic Spectrum Plan, which will provide a long-term vision for domestic spectrum use and strategies to meet those needs.  While the National Broadband Plan touches on several of these areas, my legislation will provide greater assistance in developing a 21st century comprehensive spectrum policy necessary to meet the future spectrum needs of all users. Because we must not forget that spectrum is essential for not just wireless broadband but also surveillance, imaging radar, radio navigation such as GPS, and several other radio-based services.

While spectrum is the oxygen of the industry, oxygen constitutes only 21 percent of the air we breathe. So in order to foster the continued health of wireless, we cannot excessively rely on spectrum reallocation. What is required is a multi-faceted solution that also includes robust spectrum management policy, which explores spectrum sharing and reuse opportunities, technical innovation such as spatial multiplexing, femtocells, smart antennas, and cognitive radio, as well as even greater fiber optic backhaul investment. Our nation’s competitiveness, economy, and national security demand that we allocate the necessary attention to this policy shortcoming — it is the only way we will be able to avert a looming spectrum crisis and continue to realize the boundless benefits of spectrum-based services.


Snowe is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.