America’s Bipartisan Spectrum Opportunity

Scott Cleland Contributor
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Supplying more radio spectrum to satisfy Americans’ rocketing demand for more mobile bandwidth is a bipartisan and common sense goal.

Fortunately Congress has an exceptional opportunity in this month’s must-pass omnibus spending bill to work together to make significantly more progress toward this bipartisan congressional goal and the President’s pledge to make 500 megahertz of spectrum available by 2020 for both licensed and unlicensed use.

Reallocating underutilized government spectrum for more productive consumer and commercial use is also an opportunity to further mobilize Americans’ work, commerce, and leisure and to be a fount of additional American growth, innovation and productivity.  

Radio spectrum is the source and enabler of mobile computing, so one’s smartphone surfing can only be as fast as the amount of spectrum radio frequencies available for its use at any given time or place.

In the twentieth century, computing was stationary so demand for radio spectrum was vastly less than it is today. In that bygone era of relatively low demand for consumer or commercial radio spectrum, government agencies could effectively stockpile spectrum for future use by substantially underutilizing the spectrum they had been assigned decades ago.  

In the twentieth century, the U.S. Government’s spectrum planning and reallocation process also could afford to be glacial in pace because there was so little external demand and so much underutilized government spectrum.

Not so today. The rate of computing change driven by Moore’s Law is only accelerating the mobile revolution and its voracious appetite for more radio spectrum.

The problem here requiring bipartisan congressional support to resolve is that we have a twentieth century 1G spectrum allocation process in a twenty first century 4G mobile economy that is rapidly hurtling towards a 5G gigabit speed mobile economy in the 2020s that enables device bandwidth speeds 30-50 times faster than today.

To appreciate how much more government radio spectrum needs to be reallocated soonest consider the massive waves of spectrum demand we have already seen and the veritable tsunami of consumer and commercial demand for more spectrum in the upcoming decade.    

Consider the unprecedented rapid increase in demand for spectrum caused by the rocketing growth of smartphone adoption. The iPhone was introduced in mid-2007, and in just eight short years three quarters of Americans use them, making smartphones one of the fastest adopted technological devices in history.

On top of that spectacular subscriber growth, many users also now use multiple personal mobile devices. To put that per person device increase in perspective, just recently Ericsson estimated that the number of mobile subscriptions worldwide now outnumbers the world’s population — when 4 billion people still don’t have a wireless device.

In addition, most of these users and devices now increasingly want to stream more mobile video wherever they happen to be at a given time. Further stimulating this demand for spectrum is the recent rapid increase in competitive over-the-top (OTT) offerings of popular video programming.

On top of this vast increase in demand from increased users, personal devices and average personal usage, demand is accelerating from fast growing Internet of Things demand. To put this in perspective, Business Insider analysts estimate there will be 150% more Internet of Things devices needing spectrum availability than traditional computing devices like smartphones, tablets, and wearables, by 2020.    

All of these developments combine to fuel data traffic growth estimates of over 500% in the next five years per CTIA, The Wireless Association.

Then when we get to 2020, the commercial wireless industry will be upgrading from 4G LTE to 5G, which will enable devices and applications to benefit from bandwidth speeds 30-50 times faster than today.

While the twenty first century mobile computing revolution of laptops, smartphones, tablets, and wearables maybe one of the most empowering, freeing and productive systemic innovations and growth opportunities in American history, it won’t be sustainable into the 2020s without lots more spectrum reallocated soonest.

Congress needs to work on a bipartisan basis with the Administration to get this high economic priority done in the pending omnibus spending bill. It can’t wait another year, because demand for radio spectrum is growing at roughly 100 percent annually.  

No bipartisan cooperation on spectrum reallocation means stunting America’s twenty first century mobile opportunity.

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, an emergent enterprise risk consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, and Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests.