Seiffert: Dwindling Spectrum Threatens Wireless Revolution

Posted October 3, 2012 at 4:33pm

It doesn’t seem very long ago that we all simply wanted our MTV. Today, we have far greater expectations of our technology – doctors have access to up-to-the-second medical information at their fingertips, businesses save time, travel and resources through video conferences that reach across the globe, and activists in emerging democracies organize citizens through mobile devices.

And of course, we all still want our MTV – but we want it on our tablet in the back of a taxi cab while we’re headed across town.

The economic benefits of the wireless data revolution have been massive, with estimates showing $20 billion in wireless broadband investments will increase the gross domestic product tenfold and lead to millions of new jobs. Meanwhile, the industry is delivering new technologies, which are spurring American innovation and creating economic opportunity in every state.

And while wireless data is changing how we live and how businesses operate, there is a very real possibility that all of these things we want could soon become much harder, and more expensive, to get. Spectrum – the finite resource that is oxygen for the wireless economy – is now in very short supply as mobile data traffic increases exponentially.

Cisco’s annual Visual Networking Index shows that worldwide mobile data traffic more than doubled in 2011 alone, with smartphone usage nearly tripling and average connection speeds increasing 66 percent. Video now makes up more than 50 percent of all mobile data traffic, and overall data demand is projected to increase another eighteenfold in five years.

Meanwhile, it has been estimated that the United States might need as much as 1,720 megahertz of spectrum within the next eight years – yet a mere 400 MHz is currently allocated for commercial wireless broadband use. At this rate, consumers and businesses will soon face higher prices, slower data rates, more network congestion and fewer innovative services.

What can be done? To begin with, we need a sustained national effort to identify and reallocate more frequencies for mobile broadband use.

The place to start is with the huge chunks of spectrum that are held by the federal government.

The Commerce Department recently determined it is possible to reallocate a 95 MHz-block of prime federal spectrum, much of which is being used by outmoded systems, including some older defense systems.

And while there is general agreement around this plan, we could be a long way from seeing it happen. Some estimates say it could take up to 10 years – during which time our mobile devices might go from gasping for spectrum to being put on life support.

With such urgency, the communications industry has already been working with government to help facilitate the transition. But ultimately this will require a significant federal commitment. Congress and the Obama administration must press the Pentagon to provide accurate information regarding the costs and time frame for the reallocation.

Importantly, this transition could actually benefit taxpayers. Indeed, wireless carriers are eager to license the spectrum, with the auction revenues for this block alone projected to yield tens of billions of dollars. As an example, it is estimated that the recently authorized “voluntary incentive auction” of over-the-air television broadcast spectrum will turn a
multibillion-dollar profit for the Treasury.

Even while government inches forward, industry is launching new technological improvements that will help satisfy consumer demand. Because of this, the nation’s airwaves are being used more efficiently than ever before. New technologies are being designed and deployed with efficiency top of mind, and the industry continues to innovate to keep service available, fast and affordable.

Ultimately, however, there is no way around the need to transition spectrum from the government to the private sector – and to do it quickly and efficiently.

Doing so is only a first step in what needs to be a larger effort in years to come, but it will help ensure that the wireless revolution does not stall at this pivotal moment. It will help keep the United States as the world leader in technological innovation and make certain businesses have the wireless capabilities they need to compete globally. And of course, it will help make certain we all have our MTV – along with our YouTube and Facebook – wherever and whenever we want.

Grant Seiffert is the president of the Telecommunications Industry Association.