McLaughlin: Smarter devices essential to wireless broadband

"It's only because our receivers are so stupid that spectrum is a scarce resource," he said on a panel about broadband deployment.

He is one of many in the Obama administration who say spectrum should be "shared," meaning, for example, that some of broadcasters' airwaves should be open to others when they aren't being used. The FCC is now hammering out ways to make this happen with "white space" devices that can find open airwaves and avoid those that are in use.

"Smarter" technologies are a bit hit at CES, with companies from Intel to Microsoft coming out with chips and devices that can "sense" their environments. And policy makers' increasing interest in these devices bodes well for their success on the market.  The broadband plan soon to be released by the FCC will include recommendations about "spectrum sharing."

Congress is also paying close attention to the spectrum shortage, which the FCC has called a "crisis." Just this week, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) told the FCC to pick up the pace on resolving spectrum proceedings pending at the agency. Lawmakers also want the FCC to look at letting private firms use some government and military airwaves when not in use.

"We need to make sure we're not using dumb receivers that can only pick up signals that were destined for their ears," said Susan Crawford, law professor at University of Michigan who until recently was a White House technology advisor.