U.S. needs a clear picture of wireless

As the Internet becomes more and more vital to every American’s life, an increasing number of people are accessing the Internet via wireless devices.

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Wireless Internet connectivity today already powers e-book readers, wireless electricity meters, affordable netbooks, digital cameras, remotely controlled home door locks and do-it-all smart phones. Data traffic is skyrocketing as wireless technology improves and as entrepreneurs come up with new ways to harness that technology. This trend is only going to continue with the deployment of 4G networks that will be able to easily handle high-quality streaming video and other bandwidth-heavy services. Who knows what paradigm-shifting and spectrum-hungry devices will be in consumers’ hands during the next decade?

Despite wireless broadband becoming more important and more ubiquitous in Americans’ lives, the United States has no comprehensive, long-term spectrum policy in place. Industry analysts predict that hundreds of megahertz of spectrum will be required to meet our nation’s wireless broadband demand over the next decade, yet the spectrum pipeline currently contains far less than that. Rather than rely on the sporadic, ad hoc efforts the government has used in the past, we need to develop a new policy framework that will ensure the marketplace has enough spectrum to meet consumers’ needs while promoting the most efficient and best use of that spectrum. 

Historically, it has taken policymakers six to 13 years to free up spectrum for auctions, and that does not include how long it takes for spectrum holders to fully utilize those new holdings. If wireless data traffic is going to at least double annually for the next few years, as is expected, Congress cannot wait any longer to begin the process of identifying spectrum for auction. The first thing we can and should do is create an inventory of all the spectrum held by industry and government agencies so policymakers can have a clear picture of the wireless landscape. 

Any effort, however, to allocate more spectrum for wireless broadband will be wasted if the spectrum is hoarded, not built out or not put to good use.

We should explore market-based solutions that will allow our airwaves to be used more efficiently. Much of our nation’s spectrum was allocated with very narrow and specific restrictions, leading to inefficiencies. We need more flexible rules that will let the market determine which wireless technologies and business models thrive, rather than having bureaucrats and politicians pick winners and losers. The government should also take another look at its rules for secondary spectrum markets.

The last two decades brought us the wonders of the personal computer, wireless communications and the Internet. I believe this new decade will see those already powerful technologies merge in ways that will forever and profoundly change how we live, but only if the government acts swiftly.

Congress has a chance right now to work together in a bipartisan manner to ensure our country stays at the cutting edge of innovation. With a strategic and comprehensive spectrum policy in place, high-paying jobs will be created, American companies will prosper, and consumers will benefit.

If we act too slowly, however, the United States may end up watching the rest of the world sweep past us during the coming mobile revolution. 

Ensign is the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.