Spectrum: oxygen of wireless world

Smart phones and other advanced mobile devices will increasingly provide consumers with new and better ways to communicate and get information through an ever-expanding number of applications and services that rely on the Internet.

But the explosive demand for wireless innovation is testing the limits of a fundamental resource: spectrum. It is the oxygen of the wireless world — fueling every aspect of our mobile broadband ecosystem. As more and more consumers use their wireless devices to watch and send videos, listen to Internet radio, send pictures, and test out the latest innovative application, the airwaves are growing increasingly crowded. To sustain the rapid pace of wireless growth and enable the next generation of mobile innovation, we must maximize the use of our nation’s spectrum.

The U.S. currently has very little spectrum remaining to assign for wireless broadband, while our international economic competitors have considerably more arriving in the pipelines, according to industry sources. For the U.S. to lead the world in mobile, this looming gap must be addressed. As the agency in charge of allocating commercial spectrum, the FCC has long been focused on the problem. That focus has grown even more intense as we are looking at spectrum policy in three separate, major proceedings.

One of these proceedings arises out of Congress’s mandate that we develop a National Broadband Plan to deliver high-speed Internet to the entire nation. The need for spectrum has been a repeated message delivered by participants in the ongoing series of workshops and field hearings we’re holding to develop a record for the plan. Wireless carriers, for instance, told us they are experiencing tremendous increases in mobile data usage. While opinion is mixed as to whether we need more spectrum or simply need to use what we have more efficiently, the workshops made it clear that spectrum demand may soon outstrip supply for some carriers in particular markets around the country. The workshops have also demonstrated that wireless services are an important part of our broadband infrastructure, and must be considered in the National Broadband Plan we deliver to Congress on Feb. 17.

The other two proceedings are separate Commission inquiries on mobile services, both of which will examine spectrum issues. Our inquiry on innovation and investment in the wireless market will examine the FCC’s decisions on how spectrum is allocated, assigned, and how spectrum is licensed — or remains unlicensed. The examination will also focus on how wireless equipment is authorized, how harmful interference is defined, how disputes are adjudicated, and how band-sharing is administered, among many other issues. This proceeding underscores that entrepreneurs and innovators in the wireless space are integral to the Commission’s understanding of the overall mobile ecosystem in terms of investment and economic growth.

The second inquiry will analyze competition in the wireless industry, including the role spectrum holdings play in market structure, conduct, and performance. We’ll be looking at how wireless carriers are using spectrum to provide various services, the extent to which they are efficiently utilizing their current spectrum assignments, and how much additional spectrum may be required to support next generation technologies and mobile broadband applications. We’re also seeking data and gathering input on the ways in which demands for spectrum may differ in urban and rural areas, along with many other questions.

When it comes to spectrum policy, the Commission has had some real successes. Those include the commercial mobile service auctions during the mid-’90s, which were successfully designed and ushered in an era of competition and digital mobile technology that helped make wireless service affordable and accessible to the public. The Commission also created the unlicensed regime that enabled Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as other powerful innovations. But there are also examples of failures — band plans and services that failed to attract users and wasted much effort and time.

We’re looking hard at these past successes and failures in spectrum policy as we move into this exciting new era of wireless broadband. The Commission’s proceedings are open to the public and all stakeholders are encouraged to contribute their best ideas and input. Our overarching objectives as we proceed on these, and other Commission initiatives, will be to maximize consumer benefit, drive investment and job creation, spark greater innovation, and promote competition.

Genachowski is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.