Unlicensed Spectrum Can Drive Innovation


Engine has filed a comment with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) encouraging broader allocation of unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry; spectrum management is a highly technical area of public policy. We’re speaking up because innovators need spaces to develop their ideas for new technologies and devices.

Let’s take a step back. Spectrum is allocated to commercial users through one of three main methods. It’s auctioned, as is the case with most cellular voice and data airwaves. It’s assigned, a method that has fallen out of favor since the rise of the FCC auction system but had been widely used for television broadcasters. It is also opened up, allowing users to operate on the same wireless frequencies by setting standards to prevent interference. You’re probably familiar with some unlicensed standards; they include technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth, and RFID.

Why does unlicensed spectrum matter to startups? While spectrum is a public resource, it’s tightly regulated to keep different users from broadcasting on top of each other. As a result it’s also very hard to access. In addition to regulation, the FCC has raised billions of dollars from spectrum auctions over the last twenty years, and Congress in turn has prioritized bringing in money for the federal government, putting new auctions at the front of the policy agenda. While steps have been taken to free more spectrum for unlicensed use, very few new technologies have been deployed on opened frequencies.

It’s critical that government sees unlicensed spectrum as an investment in the future. Wireless policy is as much about opportunity as it is about utilization. Just as policy decisions laid the foundation for the deployment of LTE technologies, more needs to be done for innovators looking to roll out compelling point-to-point technology, internet-of-things technologies like smart grid, and even faster, more robust WiFi standards.

Spectrum management is not a zero-sum game. Allowing innovators access to more spectrum with fewer regulatory limitations won’t necessarily crowd out existing users. We will continue to work with regulators and legislators to find opportunities for innovators to make the most of this critical public resource.

Photo courtesy of Colin Howley.