For Smartphone Users, Spectrum Is Speed

Scott Cleland | Chairman, NetCompetition

Why is the federal government against faster smartphone Internet access?

Your smartphone surfing is only as fast as the spectrum (wireless frequencies) available for it to use.

In just eight years, a remarkable three quarters of Americans have become smart-phone users.

More wireless users are using more apps and video streaming, more often, which means that U.S. wireless data traffic will increase six-fold over the next five years, per CTIA estimates.

However, this exploding speedy smartphone demand is not being met with any government urgency to make more spectrum supply available to the marketplace for consumers.

That’s because the controller of roughly two-thirds of the nation’s spectrum resource – the U.S. government – already allocated most all of the nation’s spectrum to federal bureaucracies for 20th century bureaucratic priorities prior to the advent of the mobile broadband revolution.

It is also because of an Obama administration decision to no longer make available under-utilized government spectrum for commercial auction. As CTIA, the wireless association explains: “the traditional licensed spectrum pipeline is empty” and the U.S. has “no plan beyond 2020 to accommodate mobile growth.”

The only spectrum coming into the marketplace in the next five years is not from the federal government’s spectrum hoard. TV broadcast spectrum is being repurposed for commercial wireless broadband use in the FCC’s planned 2016 Incentive Auction.

Even if the FCC’s first-ever, two-sided auction works perfectly, a big if, it would supply at most 40 percent of the licensed spectrum needed in the next five years to just keep pace with speedy smartphone demand.

Everyone knows the future is wireless except the federal government. That’s because consumers’ priorities here are very different from the federal government’s.

Consumers’ Internet usage is shifting dramatically away from desktop computers and wireline Internet access to smartphones, tablets, laptops, and mobile Internet access. Over half of all Internet traffic is mobile, in part because of consumers’ strong demand for video streaming.

American consumers want speed and wireless speed is spectrum.

So why is the federal government blocking more licensed spectrum from being available for auction to satisfy consumer demand?

The primary reason is the Obama administration and FCC’s strong policy bias for fast wireline Internet over a fast wireless Internet.

That’s because if wireless broadband providers were considered viable competitors and functional substitutes to wireline broadband competitors, it would undermine the legal, regulatory, and political case for moving towards the administration’s  vision of a more government-controlled “public” Internet.

Consider the evidence of a public wireline-WiFi industrial policy to supplant wireless-wireline broadband competition.

The Commerce Department unilaterally changed U.S. spectrum policy from auctioning government spectrum for commercialization to no more auctions and a “spectrum-sharing” policy where the government would always be the primary and controlling user for two thirds of America’s spectrum.

The administration is pushing a government-centric and subsidized, “Gigabit Fiber Cities” vision for broadband.

It also is pushing construction of government-subsidized muni-broadband, fiber-WiFi networks in markets where there are already commercial broadband providers.

The president publicly called for the “strongest possible” Title II utility regulation of broadband.

The FCC’s majority-passed, Open Internet Order implemented the president’s telephone utility vision for broadband in part by declaring the Title II regulated Public Switched Telephone Network and the Internet were one in the same.

Lastly, the FCC changed the longstanding FCC competitive speed standard to be considered broadband from 4 to 25 MBps. Such an arbitrarily high speed conveniently eliminated the wireless broadband services of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, as competitors to wireline cable, DSL or fiber broadband service. It also made it easier for the FCC to justify Title II utility regulation of broadband and FCC blockage of the Comcast-Time-Warner merger.

In sum, think of the federal government’s no-more-commercial-spectrum-for-consumers policy as the little spinning wheel on a smartphone as one waits longer for apps or websites to load, because spectrum is speed.

No more spectrum supply and exploding demand will slow smartphone Internet access to the speed of government.

There is an old adage that the most unsafe political place in Washington is getting in between a politician and a TV camera.

The 21st century corollary may be the most unsafe political place in Washington is getting in the way of consumers and what they want immediately from their smartphones.

Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, a research consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, and Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests.

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