Spectrum: Solved? Not Quite.

A week ago, H.R.3630 passed the Senate, ending the spectrum stalemate that had been ongoing between mobile broadband operators, cable companies, and innovators to gain access to a dwindling supply of spectrum licenses. We wrote a longer piece examining the issues behind the stalemate and tentatively hoping the legislation could help us avoid a spectrum crunch.

Larry Downes wrote a really informative post on CNET this week warning that this may not be the case, for the following reasons:

  • The FCC said that mobile users will need an additional 300MHz of spectrum by 2015, and an additional 500 MHz by 2020. Problem is, legislation or no legislation, there isn’t that much usable spectrum to go around. Nowhere near enough, according to Downes.
  • There is spectrum which is not being used(including swathes of warehoused government spectrum), or not being used to its full capacity, but the nature of the FCC’s “increasingly outdated licensing system” makes it extremely difficult to re-purpose this spectrum to be more effectively used with today’s technologies. The new legislation takes steps to fix this, but we won’t see results of this for probably 10 years -- seven years too late for the aforementioned 2015 deadline.

All of which sounds pretty sinister.

But Downes advocates for the following short to medium term solutions to help close the gap and keep us from mobile broadband disaster. While not negating the threat entirely, they might at least constitute better solutions than burying ones head in the sand and hoping against all hope that spectrum learns how to multiply itself organically.

  • Let them merge. When mobile carriers merge, they tend to make better use of limited bandwidth.
  • Build more cellphone towers. Local zoning authorities can make it difficult for cell phone companies to update and add to their core infrastructure, which is the next best option for these companies to optimize their services without additional spectrum.
  • Let’s all get new phones. Newer technologies make better, more efficient use of spectrum, particularly in the 4G LTE band. If everyone switched over, and there was tiered pricing plans for data use, we could suck a little more spectrum toothpaste out of the tube.

Ultimately though? We’re with Downes on this one: we need to rethink spectrum. We need to spend time hashing it out and crafting legislation alongside innovative processes that will work with our constantly evolving needs. We need to turn spectrum licensing into a responsive and nimble machine instead of a lumbering beast that needs massive overhauls every decade just to keep the system from complete collapse. So let’s look at this as an opportunity, rather than a disaster; as a chance to help shape long-term policy that fosters innovation.

Let us know what you think. Head over to Step2 to tell us your thoughts on spectrum as part of the innovation agenda.