Why the government needs to free up more spectrum for wireless companies

In my twenty-five years working with leading wireless technology, media and research companies, as well as serving as an official in the Clinton administration, I have seen first-hand the blistering speed with which U.S. consumers are adopting wireless technologies and the tremendous strain those 330 million wireless connections are placing on our finite spectrum supply. As the board chair of Mobile Future, a coalition of technology and communications companies and non-profit organizations that support investment and innovation in wireless, I can tell you that swift government action to identify and free up additional spectrum must be a national priority. Not only do we need additional spectrum to meet current consumer demand, and to ensure America’s future economic vitality, but we also must prepare for the onslaught of next generation wireless innovations.

One just needs to look at analyst predictions surrounding the release of the new iPhone5 to begin to grasp American consumers’ unquenchable thirst for wireless technologies. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. just this week estimated sales of the new iPhone could add between a quarter and a half of a percentage point to the annualized rate of economic growth in the fourth quarter. And Time magazine last month published a must-read special issue focused on America’s mobile future. Thanks to our ever faster and more ubiquitous wireless broadband networks and the smartphones that use them, Time rightly concluded that when it comes to our demand for mobile connectivity, “only money comes close” to our “always at hand, don’t leave home without it” attitude. Then again, the magazine notes, our smartphones are quickly replacing money, too.

There are more than 330 million wireless connections in the U.S. and counting. And as we increase our reliance on mobile devices, applications and networks, we also require more of the technology backbone that supports that use — spectrum. However, the FCC, the White House, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)and industry leaders all agree that not enough spectrum is in place to meet increasing consumer demand.


The root of the problem is that it is primarily government and broadcasters — not wireless companies — that still hold the great majority of the spectrum best suited for mobile. And much of that spectrum is underutilized. Mobile Future recently created a “Growing Demand for Wireless Spectrum” infographic, which contrasts the booming consumer demand for mobile and the small percentage of airwaves available to support that demand going forward.

The Wireless Association (CTIA) reports that only 409.5 MHz of spectrum has been assigned by the government to support commercial wireless services. With the radio waves best suited for providing high speed, commercial wireless broadband services situated between 400 MHz and 3 GHz, wireless network operators have access to less than 16 percent of these critical airwaves. Government agencies and television broadcasters, on the other hand, primarily have access to the remaining nearly 85 percent.

To put this into perspective, consider that commercial wireless broadband providers support more than 330 million connections with 409.5 MHz, serving nearly 90 percent of the American public, while broadcasters provide traditional, analog television to just eight percent of the U.S. population.

This meager allocation of spectrum is the same amount that was available to support the mobile Internet in 2007 when the iPhone was first introduced.

Flash forward to today:

What lies ahead?

The FCC has stated that without additional spectrum, by 2014 U.S. wireless consumers will not have enough spectrum available to fuel their devices.

Just imagine if traffic on your local freeway was expected to grow 74 percent each year for the next five years and there was no land available to build additional lanes?

While the Obama Administration and the Federal Communications Commission have worked diligently to draw attention to this issue, concrete and immediate action is needed to help alleviate both the near-term and long-term strain.

The FCC and the White House have shown great leadership in finding a path toward making more spectrum available for consumers to use. But they need to seal some deals — from reallocating under-utilized government spectrum for mobile use to setting near-term plans for voluntary incentive auctions to supporting a vibrant secondary market that allows spectrum to move to its most valued use. Mobile Future recently sent a letter to President Obama outlining a series of twelve such steps that can be taken this year.

And these actions would come not a moment too soon, as Time reminds us.  According to Time’s Mobility Poll, one in four Americans check their phones every 30 minutes and one third of us admit that being without it for even a short period makes us anxious.

The wireless industry has been racing to keep up with consumers’ wireless use. Now it’s time for government to respond with the same sense of urgency.

Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, a coalition of technology and communications companies, consumers and a diverse group of non-profit organizations focused on the wireless sector.  

Explore the implications of our increasingly wireless world at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in San Francisco (September 20 – 21).

Image courtesy of Flickr user jurvetson.