- Rising demand for data from users of mobile phones, tablets, PCs and other devices is leading to a spectrum crunch .
- Global mobile data traffic grew by 70% in 2012 alone, and is expected to increase thirteen-fold by 2017.
- A wireless network’s capacity to handle data is limited by the amount of spectrum licensed to the wireless provider, but the increased data traffic is straining provider’s networks.
- More towers could ease the spectrum crunch, but local governments have made tower construction difficult.
- Meanwhile, the federal government owns nearly 60% of the spectrum ideal for wireless use . Government agencies have little incentive to use their spectrum efficiently and no incentive to give up spectrum they do not need. There is no mechanism for regularly reallocating government’s unused or inefficiently-used spectrum for private sector use.
The White House Spectrum Memo : Two weeks ago, the White House released a Presidential Memorandum entitled “ Expanding America’s Leadership in Wireless Innovation ,” including three key measures for making more Federal spectrum available to meet demand for mobile broadband:
- A Spectrum Policy Team will:
- Work with the NTIA and FCC to evaluate spectrum currently being used by the Federal Government and identify opportunities for spectrum sharing between federal agencies and the private sector: companies could use the spectrum but government agencies would remain the primary users and could preempt private (secondary) users when necessary.
- Recommend ways to incentivize Federal agencies to share or relinquish spectrum .
Federal agencies must begin providing regular assessments of how efficiently they are using their spectrum in bands deemed appropriate for sharing. The FCC should adopt receiver standards for wireless devices to reduce how much interference mobile devices pick up from adjacent spectrum bands, which in turn would make more spectrum available for wireless use.
Questions that Should be Asked — and TechFreedom’s Positions
What does the White House Memo get right?
- The Memo notes several key priorities, such as identifying government spectrum suitable for wireless use, evaluating the efficiency of current Federal usage, incentivizing more efficient Federal usage, and defining receiver standards to protect spectrum rights.
What does the White House Memo get wrong?
- The Memo focuses almost entirely on spectrum sharing, rather than reallocating spectrum.
- The Memo allows Federal agencies to assess their own spectrum use. But given the strong incentive for Federal agencies to retain their spectrum (and their history of doing so tenaciously), accurate audits can only be performed by outside, neutral parties.
Why isn’t spectrum sharing the answer?
- To avoid interference between primary (government) and secondary (private) users, sharing spectrum requires extensive and regular coordination a complicated process that can make spectrum less useful and increase its costs — even if an agency were a willing partner.
- Past experiments with spectrum sharing as well as agencies’ continued unwillingness to relinquish their spectrum have shown that Federal agencies will make the spectrum sharing process unnecessarily difficult for private partners.
- Sharing also requires as-yet-commercially unavailable smarter mobile devices that can function on multiple spectrum bands (since service may be disrupted on such bands). Such capability will likely reduce device battery life and either increase the size and weight of the device or require reducing the functionality of the device. How should we reallocate more government spectrum toward meeting consumer demand?
- Consumers need more spectrum dedicated to providing them data service. That requires clearing and auctioning off inefficiently-used or unused Federal spectrum.
- Reallocating government spectrum by auction will result in more efficient use of the spectrum because the resource will be allocated to those who value it the most. This should foster innovation and competition in ways that spectrum-sharing might not. Shared spectrum is necessarily limited in the purposes for which it can be used, thus preventing the spectrum from rising to its highest-valued use.
- Instead of allowing agencies to audit their own spectrum use, Congress should consider creating an independent commission modeled on the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) to audit how efficiently federal agencies are using their spectrum and to determine which bands of federal spectrum should be reallocated for private-sector use.
- As the White House Memo suggests, agencies should be given incentives to use their spectrum efficiently. Congress should also consider imposing user fees on Federal agencies to encourage them to use their spectrum as efficiently as possible and relinquish what they do not need. Even if done in a budget-neutral way, such fees could change agency incentives.