Don’t overlook potential of unlicensed spectrum

In Santa Clara, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, we’re busy building what will be the greatest football stadium in the country for the greatest pro football team in the country, the San Francisco 49ers. Among the features of this 21st century stadium is the capacity to house 68,500 people, luxury boxes, an open design, 13,000 square feet of high-definition video boards, and most remarkably, stadium-wide Wi-Fi capability.
The stadium will have Wi-Fi access for its 68,500 fans to concurrently upload and download data at about the same speed or even faster than a typical mobile connection. For fans who’ve been to a large sporting event recently, this is relief from battling overloaded mobile networks when trying to upload that photo you just took on the sideline with Super Bowl-winning quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The developers of the new stadium are able to build this goliath Wi-Fi network using wireless spectrum (the airwaves by which wireless communications signals travel) dedicated for unlicensed use. Unlike the licensed spectrum used by wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon, and bid for at auction for exclusive access, unlicensed spectrum is available for use by anyone. Unlicensed is a platform that is open or shared, meaning entrepreneurs with the latest gadgets can utilize it to innovate without permission, such as constructing an extremely robust Wi-Fi network in a football stadium that is open to everyone.

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As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepares for the world’s first incentive auction to provide more spectrum for mobile broadband services, we have a unique opportunity to fuel a new generation of unlicensed innovation much like the Wi-Fi network at the 49ers stadium, supporting rural broadband, connected hospitals, and smart grid networking.

The FCC, the agency in charge of spectrum licensing, is holding this incentive auction under the direction of Congress. It will begin by soliciting offers from TV broadcasters, the holders of large swaths of spectrum, to voluntarily relinquish control in exchange for a portion of the proceeds from auctioning the spectrum to wireless carriers. The auction is expected to raise billions of dollars in revenue and will support the build-out of a nationwide interoperable public safety network, advancement of next generation 9-1-1 technology, and deficit reduction.

The FCC has historically allotted portions of wireless spectrum for unlicensed use while auctioning the rest for private licensed use. So far it has paid off with pervasive unlicensed innovations like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. But with incumbent wireless carriers eager to expand licensed spectrum to meet the skyrocketing demands of consumers for wireless broadband, the FCC is under pressure to auction the entire spectrum made available for mobile broadband.

More than half of all Americans now own a smartphone, and as the number of wireless devices increases, so has data consumption. In 2012, mobile devices in the United States downloaded more than 1.4 trillion megabytes of data — that’s nearly four times more demand than in 2010.

It’s understandable why wireless carriers would want to fortify their networks with more licensed spectrum.

But it is unlicensed spectrum that is doing most of the heavy lifting. According to a Cisco study, last year 57 percent of America’s mobile data traffic was offloaded onto Wi-Fi networks supported by unlicensed spectrum. By 2018, it’s estimated that 64 percent of domestic mobile traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi networks. Nationwide, cable operators are utilizing the power of unlicensed spectrum to provide their customers with more than 200,000 Wi-Fi hotspots.

Furthermore, one estimate found that unlicensed spectrum accounted for more than $200 billion of the U.S. economy last year, including $36 billion in savings to consumers. Previous estimates concluded that the unlicensed wireless sector contributes between $50 billion and $100 billion per year to the U.S. economy.

Unlicensed spectrum is also facilitating broadband services in innovative ways and in places that incumbent broadband providers have traditionally ignored. Last year, West Virginia University became the first university in the country to use unlicensed spectrum to deliver wireless broadband service across campus. Similarly, using unlicensed spectrum and technology developed by Adaptrum, a Silicon Valley-based company, broadband service to rural and underserved communities in Nottoway County, Va., is finally a reality.

This kind of growth cannot be ignored. The FCC should ensure that when it issues the rules for the upcoming incentive auction, it balances the needs for unlicensed and licensed spectrum by structuring it to include nationwide bands of spectrum dedicated for unlicensed use and innovation. This will produce enormous economic benefits and could yield untold technological discovery.

Go Niners!


Eshoo has represented California’s 18th Congressional District, which includes a part of Silicon Valley, since 1993. She sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee and is ranking member of that panel’s subcommittee on communications and technology.