Why Startups Need More Unlicensed Spectrum, and How They Can Get It

Image: 123RF

Image: 123RF

In recent months, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) historic spectrum incentive auction has dominated telecommunications headlines. The auction, which will make as much as 126 MHz of spectrum available for licensed commercial use, has the potential to transform the mobile broadband landscape and re-shape competition in the wireless market.

But with all this focus on licensed bands, it’s easy to forget the essential role that unlicensed spectrum plays in the broader innovation ecosystem. Startups across the country are building the next generation of Internet applications, connected devices, and innovative services—all of which rely on access to unlicensed spectrum. This week, Engine joined a diverse coalition of 23 organizations and companies in urging President Barack Obama to ensure that enough unlicensed spectrum is made available to meet growing demand.

Unlicensed spectrum powers the data services that many startups have harnessed to offer new products and services. The most obvious of these unlicensed technologies is Wi-Fi, which is now the number one path for carrying Internet traffic. Unlicensed spectrum has also allowed for the emergence of connected devices (also known as the Internet of Things). The Internet of Things is expected to grow to 50 billion connected “things” by 2020, creating $19 trillion in economic value during that same time period.  

But while demand for data skyrockets and an increasing number of devices, applications, and services come online, the available spectrum that powers these products and services is dwindling. The unlicensed bands that we have historically relied on are over-used and dangerously congested, slowing connections and threatening quality. The problem has gotten so severe that Cisco and Apple recently warned customers that the main band used for Wi-Fi connectivity is no longer suitable for business or mission critical enterprise applications.

Since additional spectrum can’t be created out of thin air, the only solution is to make more existing spectrum available for unlicensed use. The Administration has ongoing efforts to free up 500 MHz of spectrum for both licensed and unlicensed commercial use by 2020.  As a part of these efforts, President Obama should target the 5.9 GHz band of spectrum specifically for unlicensed use. As our letter outlines, the 5.9 GHz band is uniquely suited for unlicensed use for a number of reasons: it is large enough to support wireless innovation and investment; it is a low enough frequency to support widespread consumer operations; it is adjacent to another unlicensed band; and it is currently underutilized.

This last reason is key—there is simply no other band with as few existing incumbents to protect. This makes it one of the better options for relieving the spectrum crunch in the short term, since it won’t require a complicated relocation of government entities. The only major incumbent in the band is the automobile industry, which was allocated the 5.9 GHz band in 1999 to support Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) uses. However, after fifteen years, ITS still has not made meaningful use of the band and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that “it will likely take about 15 to 20 years before the vast majority of all vehicles on the road have the technology installed”—if not longer. Innovations like smartphone GPS have already obviated the need for certain ITS applications, and with 15 to 20 years to wait before Vehicle-to-Vehicle technologies are fully deployed, advances in the automobile industry will almost certainly emerge that render other aspects of ITS obsolete.

Even in light of this, the automobile industry is still holding tight to the 5.9 GHz band. Fortunately though, there is a simple solution. ITS and Wi-Fi can safely coexist in the band if sharing is built in from the beginning. The FCC has initiated a proceeding to consider such sharing and is on the cusp of testing potential sharing solutions. But the process has dragged on, and with demand for unlicensed spectrum increasing by the minute, it is vital that the Administration work swiftly to make sharing of the 5.9 GHz band a reality.

The 5.9 GHz band represents our country’s best unlicensed spectrum opportunity. We hope that the Obama Administration will prioritize it. Read the full letter here.