We Need More Spectrum


This post originally appeared in The Hill.

As the world becomes increasingly mobile, it is essential that U.S. policymakers devise a strategy to meet the growing demand for wireless connectivity. Yesterday, the Senate Commerce Committee passed the MOBILE NOW Act, which aims to free up additional spectrum for commercial use and improve mobile infrastructure. The bill represents a significant step towards transforming our mobile future and encouraging technological innovation. The full Senate should take up and pass the bill at the earliest opportunity.

Over the past decade, demand for wireless connectivity has skyrocketed. From 2009 to 2014, global mobile data traffic grew 35-fold and is projected to increase another seven-fold by 2020. This connectivity is dependent on both licensed cellular networks and unlicensed Wi-Fi networks (for the first time ever, in 2015 more traffic was offloaded onto Wi-Fi than remained on cellular networks). Improvements in wireless broadband have fueled a mobile app economy that grew from essentially nothing in 2007 to a $120 billion ecosystem today. A large portion of this market is made up by startups, which represent 82 percent of mobile app companies.

Beyond mobile usage on traditional devices like cellphones, laptops, and tablets, the coming years will see an enormous increase in non-traditional connected devices. While the Internet of Things was little more than a concept a few years ago, soon everything from our refrigerators to our cars to our clothing will increasingly become connected. An estimated 50 billion devices will be connected by 2020, creating $19 trillion in economic value during that same time period. Agile startups have the potential to capitalize on this evolving market by quickly responding to opportunities and developing new products and services.

But in order to foster an innovative mobile ecosystem, we are going to need more spectrum. And a lot of it. Based on some projections, the U.S. will need an additional 350 MHz by 2020 to satisfy commercial needs. To put this in perspective, it has taken President Obama almost the entirety of his Administration to reallocate just 245 MHz. While efforts are underway to free up additional spectrum, the Administration could use a nudge to speed up the process.

The MOBILE NOW Act would provide that push and ensure that efforts to free up spectrum continue into the next Administration. The bill mandates that the Administration’s 2010 plan to free up 500 MHz of government spectrum for commercial use be met by 2020. Other highlights of the bill include a requirement that the government assess the potential for commercial use in the 3 GHz and millimeter wave bands and the inclusion of the widely supported “Dig-Once” policy.

The final bill passed out of committee also included an important provision from Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) that addresses this impending connectivity crunch by creating a national “unlicensed spectrum policy” and requiring the FCC to consider unlicensed spectrum in future rulemakings. This addition to the base bill will go a long way towards fostering innovation in unlicensed bands and empowering entrepreneurs to conceive of new products and applications. Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) have shown strong leadership in passing this comprehensive legislation.

A strong federal spectrum strategy should include a balanced mix of both clearing and sharing, and make available both licensed and unlicensed spectrum. The MOBILE NOW Act does all of these things and more. That the legislation is progressing in a bipartisan manner through a divided Congress speaks to the important ideas in the bill and the desperate need to rapidly expand the nation’s wireless capacity. Passage of The MOBILE NOW Act is essential to maintaining America’s competitive edge as a global leader in mobile innovation, and Senate leadership should bring the legislation to the floor as expeditiously as possible.