Smartphones have become such an integral part of our lives that the scientific diagnosis “nomophobia” was established to describe the fear of being without it. In just the past few years, we’ve watched as industries from health care to transportation to entertainment have transformed in the palm of our hands. Most Americans have the technology to watch streaming video on their phone while sitting in the backseat of an Uber car that they have ordered and paid for through their mobile device. Yet few are aware of the looming danger that threatens to stifle innovation and degrade the quality of current services: the dire need for a resource that is a critical part of our economic future.

As we look to stimulate and strengthen our economy, licensed wireless spectrum is an oft-overlooked piece of low hanging fruit. The current system has made America’s mobile services some of the best of the world. Demand for wireless technology and infrastructure is exploding - mobile data usage grew 1,000 percent from 2010 to 2014. As a result, the spectrum through which this data flows will only become a more vital part of our economic future.


For those unfamiliar with the term, “spectrum” means the radio frequencies used by wireless services to connect hundreds of millions of users around the country. Commercial use of these frequencies by mobile broadband providers is limited to a finite number overseen by the FCC.

recent report by the Brattle Group outlines the massive economic benefits that our economy gains from commercial spectrum. It estimates that currently-licensed spectrum has an economic value of almost half a trillion dollars, but the total social welfare resulting from the wireless services it supports is exponentially higher – 10 to 20 times its direct market value – for total benefits worth five to ten trillion dollars.

With the exploding demand of an expected six-fold increase in data flows, wireless providers will require massive amounts of new licensed spectrum to keep up. To that end, policymakers in Washington, DC need to make addressing this looming spectrum crunch a priority. In 2010, the FCC, under the Obama administration, released a plan to free 300 MHz of spectrum by 2015 and a total of 500 MHz by 2020. However, they have fallen dramatically short, reallocating less than one-third of their stated 2015 target for commercial use. Even worse, the government has no plan for spectrum beyond the next five years.

The case for more spectrum doesn’t pit the special interests of business against the common good – just the opposite. Our wireless carriers need access to something dependable and sufficient to take our wireless network into the future. These companies will benefit and grow, but robust competition will keep prices down and make wireless services accessible to more and more Americans. Competition between carriers already saves consumers an estimated $5-10 trillion in income. As more Americans are brought online, they will be empowered to better converse, innovate, learn and do business together. It’s time for Congress and the FCC to give us a plan to make this future possible.

Telford is the president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.