Both the Federal Communications Commission and the wireless industry agree on at least thing: There's not enough available spectrum to sustain the anticipated growth in wireless broadband services. Smartphones, for instance, may represent the future, but it becomes almost a moot point if the wireless carriers can't obtain more spectrum to run the airwaves-hungry devices.
The CTIA, the politically powerful trade association that represents wireless carriers, has already asked the FCC for more spectrum, requesting an immediate 50MHz and another 800MHz by 2015. By contrast, the FCC currently has 410MHz allocated for commercial wireless services.
"There is a looming spectrum crisis for U.S. consumers and businesses, which are rapidly embracing and increasingly dependent on this 'wherever, whenever access,'" the CTIA wrote in its FCC filing. "Without swift and bold action by U.S. policymakers to free up a critical national resource-our nation's airwaves-consumers and businesses in this country will find themselves unable to reap the full benefits of the mobile broadband age."
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski agrees.
"Spectrum is the oxygen of our mobile networks. While the short-term outlook for 4G spectrum availability is adequate, the longer-term picture is very different," Genachowski told the CTIA Oct. 10. "I believe that the biggest threat to the future of mobile in America is the looming spectrum crisis."
Genachowski said that by some estimates, mobile data usage will grow from 6 petabytes per month in 2008 to nearly 400 petabytes per month by 2013.
"We are fast entering a world where mass-market mobile devices consume thousands of megabytes each month," Genachowski said. "So we must ask: What happens when every mobile user has an iPhone, a Palm Pre, a BlackBerry Tour or whatever the next device is? What happens when we quadruple the number of subscribers with mobile broadband on their laptops or netbooks?"
The answer, of course, is more spectrum for commercial usage, but the problem is spectrum is a finite resource that rests mostly in federal hands. With the military pursuing strategies that are wirelessly intensive, the Pentagon is not likely going to want to share its spectrum.
"I believe one of the FCC's highest priorities is to close the spectrum gap. We must promote more efficient use of spectrum," Genachowski said. "We will look at secondary markets and spectrum flexibility policies. With Wi-Fi, we've seen the benefits of adding unlicensed spectrum to the national mix. Wi-Fi allows carriers to offload to fixed broadband as much as 40 percent of traffic in the home, freeing up capacity of licensed spectrum."
Even Public Knowledge, the combative public interest group that has often tangled with wireless carriers, agrees on the need for more spectrum, albeit it not necessarily for wireless carriers like Verizon, AT&T, Spring and T-Mobile.
Gigi Sohn, co-founder and president of Public Knowledge, said at an FCC hearing in San Diego that "mobile broadband isn't the only reason the FCC should be concerned about the lack of available spectrum. Wireless remains the most cost-effective and fastest way to bring broadband access to rural residents. A substantial obstacle small and local rural providers face in attempting to expand and improve their networks is access to additional spectrum."
Sohn added, "There aren't many issues upon which public interest groups and the wireless community vehemently agree, but the need for access to additional spectrum is one of them."
Harold Feld, Public Knowledge's spectrum policy expert, says the FCC is going to ultimately discover two things about spectrum: The most valuable spectrum available is controlled by federal agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense, which will prove politically difficult to reallocate and it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to clear out additional decent-sized blocks of spectrum that will have great value in the marketplace for commercial providers.
"We believe that it will be impossible to convince the government to abandon the spectrum it controls, and that the better course is for the FCC, working with the NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration], to promote shared use of federally controlled spectrum," Sohn said.
The FCC is currently conducting a Mobile Innovation and Investment Notice of Inquiry, a proceeding that includes work on ways the FCC can develop policies and promote technologies to provide greater spectrum efficiency.