Wireless spectrum is the secret ingredient linking our smartphones to YouTube and our things to the Internet. It is the lifeblood of some of our economy’s fastest growing industries and will only grow in importance. With wireless data traffic continuing to increase dramatically, now is the time to start planning ways to accommodate for that traffic. We need to create a pipeline to channel spectrum from old sectors and technologies to new wireless broadband applications and the Internet of Things.   

Repurposing spectrum for these burgeoning new services depends on lengthy and complex bureaucratic processes. And everyone who already holds claims to spectrum that is best for wireless broadband—a diverse crowd, from TV broadcasters to the Department of Defense—is keeping a tight grip on their valuable slice of this resource, whether or not it is in the public interest.  

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In March of 2010, the Federal Communication Commission unveiled a National Broadband Plan that set a goal of making 500 megahertz of spectrum available for wireless broadband use within the next 10 years. Soon after, President Obama also made 500 megahertz the official goal for the executive branch. Now, in the summer of 2015, we are more than halfway through the National Broadband Plan’s 10-year challenge, and while we have made good progress with some low-hanging fruit, the odds of hitting the 500 megahertz target are not looking good. 

In the memorandum formalizing the 500 megahertz goal, the White House noted that “America’s future competitiveness and global technology leadership depend, in part, upon the availability of additional spectrum.”  

That point is key: our nation’s success in delivering the bandwidth needed, not just for mobile video, but for the Internet of Things and other future wireless services—critical drivers of productivity growth throughout our economy—will largely turn on how much spectrum is available. And by most measures we won’t have enough.  

Cisco’s Visual Networking Index estimates we will see a seven-fold increase in mobile traffic from 2014 to 2019. Imagine knowing that Capital Beltway traffic was set to increase seven times over—you would hope the Department of Transportation would at least have some plans in the works to add a few lanes.   A recent study by the Brattle Group estimates that to meet this demand, we will need at least 350 more megahertz of licensed spectrum by 2019.  

These projections are no doubt difficult, because there are many variables to account for. When spectrum is scarce, operators can make trade-offs, like building more and smaller cells (though this gets expensive fast). Trends like Wi-Fi offloading or the next bandwidth-hungry app are hard to predict. And of course operators can adjust pricing to lower demand to match a limited supply. Inevitable back-and-forth over whose projections are how accurate belies the fundamental point: to get cheap wireless broadband, we need more spectrum.  

So how do we get 350 more megahertz in the next four years? A big, important step is the FCC’s upcoming incentive auction. Now set for next March, it is a mind-bogglingly complex attempt to coordinate a two-sided auction—swapping spectrum from those TV broadcasters ready to exit the business to the wireless broadband providers looking for more capacity. Let’s hope the FCC succeeds in clearing a significant amount of licensed spectrum in the process. But after that, there is for the foreseeable future no clear source of spectrum available to reallocate. And this is where Congress comes in. 

While federal spectrum use is an area ripe for broader reform, the important first step is simply to identify where the next chunk of wireless capacity will come from and create a clear pipeline to allocate it for exclusive, licensed mobile operations. The sooner we do this the better, as it takes considerable time to move from planning, to auction, to building out actual networks. Thankfully, this pipeline should not be nearly as controversial as others you may have heard of. Everyone should be able to get behind a more robust, competitive, capacious mobile broadband ecosystem; this is a pipeline we can all get behind.

Brake is a telecommunications policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.