With the FCC predicting that commercial wireless spectrum could be maxed out as early as next year, U.S. companies are spending more than $23 billion annually to build out high-speed, next-generation wireless networks, but more spectrum is needed to meet growing consumer demand. We are beginning to see some progress from government as the FCC prepares for historic incentive auctions to free up underused broadcast spectrum and put it to more productive use for mobile consumers. These auctions represent a vital component of the broader national strategy to ensure America’s continued leadership in mobile technology. But by themselves, the auctions will not be sufficient to stave off the very real threat of spectrum scarcity. Despite the spectacular multi-fold increase in demand in the past few years by Americans for all things mobile, most of our nation’s broadband spectrum in fact still is not available for use by American consumers, small businesses, schools, and hospitals. In fact, a vast amount of American spectrum still is in the hands of U.S. government agencies.  And frustratingly, hundreds of badly needed megahertz of this spectrum controlled by federal agencies remains seriously underutilized. A recent infographic created by Mobile Future, “Growing Demand for Wireless Spectrum,” graphically contrasts the booming consumer demand for mobile and the small percentage of airwaves available to support that demand going forward.
To his great credit, President Obama recognized the seriousness of this problem, and issued an Executive Order requiring federal agencies to free-up significant amounts of this fallow government spectrum for consumer use. Buoyed by bipartisan support, and the backing not only of mobile consumers, workers, innovators, and companies, the hard work of implementing this Presidential spectrum order is finally underway. The message from the White House to federal agencies holding underutilized spectrum should be crystal clear: failure to get on board  is just not an option; America’s increasingly wireless-based economy requires that the identified government spectrum be allocated and cleared for consumer use as rapidly as possible.
Yet even as federal agencies, technologists, and experts have rolled-up their sleeves to begin this important task, some have argued that their focus should shift away from acting quickly to clear some of the federal airwaves for consumer use to, instead, studying longer-term and as yet unproven approaches to and technologies for sharing this inefficiently used spectrum. But while spectrum sharing may be an option down the road, implementation of sharing technologies are not quite ready for primetime, and the focus in the short-term must continue to be freeing up and clearing as much government spectrum as possible for commercial wireless use.
A recent paper by engineer Peter Rysavy, Spectrum Sharing: The Promise and The Reality, finds that while sharing may present future opportunities, the short-term challenges should not be underestimated. Rysavy finds that addressing more complex problems, such as sharing between carrier-class networks and multiple government systems, will be more difficult and time consuming – not ideal as mobile consumers push for continued innovation that is heavily reliant on wireless spectrum. The author concludes that the priority must remain on clearing and reallocating in federally-controlled spectrum bands.
As Congress meets to discuss these choices, the problem remains: we need to get more spectrum into the hands of U.S. wireless companies that serve everyday consumers now. While 55% of Americans today are already smartphone users and 29% use tablets or e-readers, those numbers continue to increase, bringing more traffic and threatening to slow the high-speed mobile services consumers have come to expect.
Thanks to a light regulatory touch, smart secondary market transactions, and increased network efficiency, carriers have been able to manage the looming spectrum crunch and its crippling consequences for consumers. But we cannot delay much longer – with several major cities already feeling its effects, the spectrum crunch may sweep the nation as early as next year.
A clear option for combating the spectrum shortage is for federal officials to critically analyze government spectrum needs and allow underused spectrum to be repurposed for commercial use. While sharing may at first glance seem like an easier answer, clearing more spectrum for mobile must remain an urgent priority so consumers can continue to reap the benefits of our expanding wireless world.
Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future has been founding CEO of leading technology, media, and research companies, including Public Insight, Snocap, and Atmedica Worldwide. He served in the Clinton Administration as a director on the National Security Council.