Industry tells House panel private sector will be key in fixing spectrum crunch

Experts and industry advocates told members of a House Science, Space and Technology subpanel on Wednesday that new technology allowing scarce radio spectrum to be shared won't be enough to meet demand.

CTIA Vice President Christopher Guttman-McCabe said such technologies are neither feasible nor desirable at this time, when available spectrum must support increasingly complex mobile devices — which Americans depend on more and more. While the recently announced National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NIST) plan to release some government-held spectrum is a good start, he said, more spectrum must be cleared and released to the consumer market if a spectrum crisis is to be prevented.

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"Without exclusive licenses [for the private sector]," he said, "it is doubtful that the massive investment … in [wireless services]" would have happened.

Cisco spectrum policy director Mary Brown agreed, saying "there is no end in sight" to the exponential growth in consumer wireless device usage.

Brown noted that the United States has been the "center of mobile broadband and mobile technologies." She told subcommittee on Technology and Innovation Chairman Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) that without more spectrum, companies that develop new technologies could migrate outside the United States and America's role as a technology leader could be threatened.

Idaho National Laboratory chief technologist Rangam Subramanian said there is "a long way to go" before a comprehensive spectrum-sharing plan for the whole country can be developed. Clearing and reallocating spectrum helps in the meantime, but it is "only a short-term solution," he said.

Ranking member Donna Edwards (D-Md.) asked what government and the private sector could do while reallocating spectrum to "step up research and development" of spectrum-sharing technology that would meet future needs. Richard Bennett, an Information Technology and Innovation Foundation senior research fellow, suggested redesigning applications to use commercial networking technologies.

"One of the things that it's important to realize is there's no downside" to acting on the assumption that the spectrum crunch is real. Subramanian added that we've "started too late" and that as a result, there isn't much spectrum to repurpose. Offloading traffic to landlines or Wi-Fi can only do so much, he said.

While the witnesses told members that reallocation is only a short-term solution compared to the future promise of spectrum-sharing, neither Bennett nor NIST deputy director James Olthoff thought the United States is doing enough to develop spectrum-sharing technologies. And without enough new technology to better use spectrum, Subramanian predicted the crunch will make even viewing a Facebook page prohibitively expensive and maddeningly slow. Brown noted that even today, finding a stable connection in some parts of California is problematic, and noted the FCC predicts trouble could rear its head nationwide as early as next year.

Guttman-McCabe pointed out that CTIA has been raising the alarm on spectrum for some time now, and even coined the term "spectrum crunch." He noted that many other countries have taken steps to make increasing amounts of spectrum available.

"If it's a conspiracy, it's a global conspiracy," he quipped.