From thermostats to door locks to cars, almost everything in our lives may soon be controlled by the click of a button or the downloading of an app. Spectrum is what powers all of this connectivity, from the licensed spectrum used for mobile connectivity and satellites to the unlicensed spectrum that’s used for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and the internet of things. In our increasingly connected world, we need to ensure that we have allocated the necessary spectrum to keep up with demand.
Spectrum is a finite resource, and the vast majority of it is held — and often underused — by the federal government. In an era when more devices rely on spectrum than ever before, we need to come up with new ways to maximize the spectrum we’ve got.
Thanks to advances in sensing and dynamic databases, it is now technically possible to do more with the same amount of spectrum than in decades past. We have the ability to share spectrum amongst many different kinds of users. Many policymakers, working with private firms, engineers and technologists, have jumped on this opportunity.
In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission decided that a band used mostly for coastal radar could also be shared with users for mobile broadband. Instead of just auctioning off licenses or treating the band just like the unlicensed spectrum used for Wi-Fi, the FCC instituted a totally new approach — the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) — to encourage new players and new entrants into this space. It works by allowing the spectrum to be shared with different priorities assigned to traffic based on who is using it.
It’s impossible to overstate how exciting this is for entrepreneurs. Under this system, you don’t have to be a major wireless carrier to afford spectrum that can reach LTE-like speeds. Almost anyone, from a hotel owner to small, independent wireless carriers, can afford a license.
The possibilities are just starting to surface: in January, Nokia, Qualcomm and Alphabet built a virtual reality zone inside stock race cars. Using this CBRS spectrum, they built a private LTE-network inside a race car and streamed 360-degree, 4K video out, giving spectators a chance to experience what it’s like to be in the race car that’s traveling around 185 mph around a track.
CBRS opportunities abound for more than just Fortune 500 companies: over the past two years, the industry has also been meeting, testing and exploring these possibilities for health care, for IoT connected factories, for augmented reality gaming, and for connecting hard-to-reach areas to broadband. With very low barriers to entry and technology ready to deploy, it’s a prime field for investment and opportunity.
However, the potential benefit that will be most visible to all consumers is likely to be CBRS’ capacity to revolutionize the wireless communications industry.
For consumers, the wireless communications industry has become synonymous with exclusivity, incumbent power, and lack of choice. There are four national carriers who dominate the marketplace, and for those who want to break into this exclusive club, the barriers to entry are nearly insurmountable. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: new carriers need spectrum to become competitive, but in order to buy spectrum, these new carriers must be able to raise massive amounts of capital, which can oftentimes only be accomplished when a business is competitive. The CBRS system offers that opportunity.
Some incumbents in the wireless industry are looking to change the rules now to make the system even more exclusive. Not only would their proposals jeopardize years of cooperation, research, and investment, they would directly violate the principles that led to the unanimous adoption of CBRS just two years ago. Unfortunately, the FCC looks like it is poised to change these rules and abandon the flexibility that makes this such an interesting band for innovation and investment.
If we truly want to see increased competition in the mobile industry and untold new products and services across multiple industries, we need to make an effort to accommodate new arrivals to the marketplace — instead of playing into the hands of well-financed and incumbent carriers.
The CBRS band is ready for business now, without changes. It’s up to the FCC to bring it online so that Americans across the country can start reaping its benefits.
Eric Migicovsky (@EricMigi) is a visiting partner at Y-Combinator, the a startup incubator and seed accelerator. He previously founded and was the CEO of Pebble, a Kickstarter-funded wearable technology company that made smartwatches.