Sen. Rubio warns of cellphone ‘crunch’

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Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioStudents gather outside White House after walkout to protest gun violence Overnight Energy: Senate confirms Bridenstine as NASA chief | Watchdog probes Pruitt’s use of security detail | Emails shine light on EPA science policy changes Senate confirms Trump’s pick to lead NASA MORE (R-Fla.) is setting his sights on the nation’s airwaves.

The Florida Republican is launching a new effort to turn government-run chunks of spectrum into a tool for powering people’s cellphones and tablets.          

This week, he introduced the first of three bills that he said were part of a multi-year effort to take advantage of the resource, which is suddenly in high demand.

“We know the crunch is coming, and there’s going to have to be a steady stream of availability to keep up with the pace of demand,” he told The Hill.

“The reality is that as everything is going increasingly mobile — every sector of our lives and of the economy is moving to mobile platforms — the increase in demand on the system is going to exponentially grow,” he said.

Cellphones, tablets and other wireless devices rely on a finite amount of capacity on the nation’s airwaves.

For years, license to use space on the spectrum was essentially free, but the increase in use of mobile devices, along with the growing demand to use them to watch movies and stream music, is leading to a strain on networks that needs to be addressed, according to the wireless industry.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been ordered to make some moves on the issue, and next year the commission is holding a closely watched auction to buy up spectrum licenses from broadcast radio and TV companies and resell them to wireless companies such as Verizon and AT&T. 

Rubio wants to turn the focus to spectrum controlled by the government, which currently holds exclusive licenses for about 18 percent of the available spectrum. Much of that is in the hands of the Pentagon.

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is working to free up a significant portion of government-operated airways by 2020. Some agencies have resisted giving up the spectrum licenses they use for national security, public safety and other purposes, but the agency has also been working to develop plans to share licenses.  

The first bill in Rubio’s package, introduced this week, would shift more government-controlled spectrum over to commercial use with a series of auctions beginning in 2018. It would also incentivize agencies to give up even more and require new analysis before agencies could get new spectrum assignments.

Wireless companies cheered it as a major step forward for redistributing airwave rights.

“Spectrum is the fuel for innovation, providing our nation with the mobility, personalization and ‘anytime/anywhere’ connectivity we have come to depend on,” said Consumer Electronics Association head Gary Shapiro, who represents Verizon and AT&T among many other companies, in a statement.

“By reallocating government spectrum for commercial use, establishing an auction pipeline with deadlines and incentivizing federal agencies to reallocate spectrum, this legislation works to advance a 21st-century spectrum policy that helps us find new ways to meet our ever-growing demand for wireless access,” he added.

In future bills, Rubio said he would call for the FCC to do more research into opportunities for Wi-Fi Internet, which relies on unlicensed spectrum zones, and try to speed up the construction of cell towers and other wireless infrastructure.

In all likelihood, the effort will spill into at least next year, said Rubio, who sits on the House Commerce subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

“It’s doubtful we can get the Commerce Committee to vote on it this year, but we certainly want to begin to set the ground rules for serious efforts on it in the next Congress,” he said.

“It begins with awareness, understanding the situation that we face with regards to availability and then putting in place policies that allow our wireless capacity to keep up with the growing demand.”

Spectrum management hardly grabs headlines, and reformers are hopeful that Rubio, a 2016 presidential contender, can bring more attention to it.

“This is not a front page issue,” said Brent Skorup, a research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

“Voters are probably not going to vote you out of office because of your position on spectrum policy,” he added, “but it’s good to see senators and congresspeople doing this thankless job of reforming spectrum policy.”