Wireless group says spectrum takes over a decade to allocate

It takes over a decade, on average, for wireless spectrum to be allocated by regulators and deployed for consumers, according to a new study from a wireless trade group.

The study by CTIA found that it takes an average 13 years for wireless spectrum — the invisible airwaves that carry signals — to be deployed after a Federal Communications Commission order is issued, beginning the allocation process.

Some allocation processes have taken less time, while some have taken as long as 18 years.

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The two authors of the report say that the lag is in part due to Congress’s role in spectrum allocation and the fact that the sitting presidential administration has great sway over the allocation process.

“Today, the federal government has sole or primary use of between 60-70 percent of spectrum suitable for wireless broadband,” they wrote. "Given this fact, every administration plays a key role in coordinating agencies’ efforts before, during, and after spectrum reallocation efforts.”

There are also delays for technical reasons, the authors said, such as the time needed to ready equipment and build new cell towers.

The findings from the trade group, which supports deploying more wireless spectrum for commercial providers, underscores the high stakes for carriers in next year’s planned spectrum auction.

An auction that closed earlier this year netted $44.9 billion, a record sum that is indicative of the massive demand for spectrum as Americans adopt data-hungry smartphones.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has experienced some difficulties in preparing for 2016’s auction. Last week, he abruptly pulled an item from the commission’s July meeting agenda that would have established bidding procedures for the auction. At a press conference after the meeting, he declined to say whether he would have had the necessary three votes to pass the measure had it been considered.

The item will be considered in August. Wheeler has said he believes that the auction can proceed on schedule despite the delay.

The auction will use an unprecedented procedure where broadcasters will sell their spectrum to the FCC, who will then resell it to wireless carriers.