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America has plenty of wireless spectrum — we just need a new way to allocate it

Wireless spectrum is one of the essential natural resources of the information age. Entire industries, and trillions of dollars in GDP, depend on access to the airwaves. And consider that spectrum is used when you surf the web on your smartphone, when your GPS navigation device tells you what exit to take, when FAA radar guides your airplane to a safe landing, when a first responder calls for assistance, and when the military tests and trains its warfighters.

In the coming years, access to spectrum will be an increasingly important foundation of America’s leadership as mobile broadband becomes a major driver of our nation’s future economic growth, and faster and more capable mobile connections become essential in improving every facet of society. Expanding the amount of spectrum available for mobile broadband use is an important part of a broader strategy to improve the speed and accessibility of wireless service in America.

Capacity hindered by inefficiency

Recently there has been considerable discussion about a looming spectrum shortage. Yet the reality is that most of our spectrum is unused most of the time. This is because spectrum is managed by often assigning exclusive rights to a particular “licensee” to use a specific frequency in a specific location, and often only for a very specific purpose or service. This approach, which is analogous to building a private road for every different type of vehicle, leads to inefficient utilization of our nation’s spectrum resources, and impedes the introduction of new technologies.

A large percentage of these frequencies service the thousands of government systems that provide the essential functions for our national security. And, in most cases, even if it were possible to reallocate their spectrum for new commercial uses and technologies, the process of doing so is extremely expensive and incredibly slow, taking on the order of a decade or more – far too slow to keep up with our fast-paced digital economy.

For these reasons, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently recommended a new approach to federal spectrum management. With a new approach, we can transform the availability of a precious national resource – spectrum – from scarcity to abundance, and do so rapidly. It is time to start building the first shared-use spectrum superhighways.

Automation of spectrum analysis

PCAST’s report calls for a new spectrum architecture that uses an automated “spectrum access system” that will enable new and inexpensive technologies to coexist with legacy federal systems. The combination of smaller radio cells and a spectrum access system could make underutilized spectrum, much of which is currently assigned to the federal government, available to commercial users in just a few years, rather than a decade or more.

As dynamic sharing evolves and spectrum is reused in smaller and smaller cells, capacity can be improved thousands of times. Likewise, capacity effectiveness can be improved thousands of times, thereby enabling less expensive mobile broadband access using technologies like LTE.  Just as we have seen with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, innovation in wide area mobile communications, sensor networks – even whole new industries and products that we cannot yet foresee – will emerge.

A pioneering first step

Last month the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to approve an important proposal to begin building the nation’s spectrum superhighways. These new rules would unlock 100 megahertz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band for commercial use. In response to a directive from President Obama, this spectrum was identified by the Commerce Department as ripe for sharing because it is only sporadically used by shipborne military radars, mostly located along the East and West Coasts.

This new spectrum management model builds upon the FCC’s pioneering experience allowing database-driven access to vacant channels (so-called “white spaces”) in the TV bands. Over time, this new model should be extended into other frequency bands as well. Building on the farsighted and ongoing work of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Department of Defense, and other federal agencies, the PCAST report calls for the eventual sharing of up to 1,000 megahertz of federal spectrum with the commercial sector.

A key to our future competitiveness

It is great progress that the FCC’s proposal is moving forward, and both the FCC and NTIA deserve our praise. However, it is important to note that any real value to the economy and consumers will start to accrue only when the review process has concluded, new rules put in place, and infrastructure is deployed. Reaching that goal quickly should remain our focus.

The European Commission recently introduced the outline for a proposal for spectrum sharing in the European Union, reminding us that we are in a world-wide innovation race. By adopting a new approach to spectrum management first, the U.S. can lead in both the amount of spectrum available and in continuing to advance the technologies required for the future.

We applaud the FCC for proposing this crucial first step. Much like the creation of interstate highways, it will catalyze innovation, fuel our competitiveness and demonstrate global leadership.

Mark Gorenberg, PCAST and Managing Director, Hummer Winblad Venture Partners

Eric Lander, PCAST and President, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard

Craig Mundie, PCAST and Chief Research and Strategy Officer, Microsoft

William Press, PCAST and the University of Texas at Austin

Eric Schmidt, PCAST and Chairman, Google 

Photo courtesy of Andrey Titarenko/

4 Responses to “America has plenty of wireless spectrum — we just need a new way to allocate it”

  1. ishekhar

    This indeed seems like a great idea !! Rather than giving the Network operators exclusive rights to bands of frequencies which they sit on even if there is no active users in the area & may charge others users roaming , allocating frequencies dynamically & on-demand to users’s needing them definitely sounds better plan to me.

    don’t’ see the challenges for devices either since my device will still be served by my SP which would switch me to available band (beyond what’s allocated to them now ) and most devices these days support multi-band anyways.

  2. ishekhar

    GigaOm, Could you please delete the above comments. Its very irrelevant and a wastage of time for readers like me who pay read not only the article but also the comments.

  3. Brett Glass

    Note that, as in other areas, the White House has ensured that Google will control the outcome of PCAST proceedings. Not only is Google’s Executive Chairman on the committee, but there are members from Hummer Winblad (which has close ties to Google) and the Broad Institute (of which Schmidt is a board member). William Press of UT Austin has also received funding from Google. In short, Google is pulling most of the strings here.