Unlicensed Spectrum Offers Innovation Opportunities for Startups


Next week, Engine will cohost “The Power and Potential of the Unlicensed Economy,” an event focused on unlicensed wireless technologies. While immigration and financial regulation have dominated stories over the last year about startup-focused legislation in Washington, new laws and proposed spectrum regulation may have a revolutionary effect on growth in the mobile device and application ecosystem.

As the four national carriers in the United States battle it out over download speeds and 3G versus 4G service, unlicensed technology has quietly carried the burden of the data services that many startups have harnessed to offer new products. For example, 47 percent of iPhone data traffic and 91 percent of iPad data traffic was observed to have been transmitted over WiFi networks (as opposed to 3G and EDGE networks), according to ComScore data cited in a November 2011 Yochai Benkler working paper

The Federal Communications Commission employs a variety of regulatory tools to prevent interference between spectrum users. The most prominent regulatory regime for smartphone users, in terms of cost, utilizes licenses that provide exclusive rights to spectrum in a given geographic area. These licenses are bid on in FCC auctions that have generated about $55 billion in revenue to the Treasury since their inception in the early 1990’s. Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon control most of these licenses, charging users a monthly fee to access their airwaves.

Unlicensed regulation flips this regime. Users can access a given band of spectrum in any place, assuming their devices follow particular technical standards and don’t overload the available bandwidth. WiFi is an example of a pervasive unlicensed technology; anyone with a WiFi compliant radio can access a hotspot anywhere in the U.S., so long as the number of users doesn’t overload the network. The same holds true for the airwaves that facilitate transmission between baby monitors, garage door openers, and RFID chips in ID badges and in mobile tap-to-pay cards and devices.

So why do these regulatory approaches matter to startups? You may have heard about the spectrum crunch in which the available bandwidth for users is outpaced by the demand for airwaves. While the demand glut for data services is a reality, there is spectrum that could be used by device manufacturers and carriers. The catch? The FCC, incumbent spectrum licensees, and other government agencies have to find ways to open more of these airwaves for new commercial applications.

Two approaches have been introduced this year to address the problem. One, called TV white spaces, allows devices to operate in the gaps of spectrum between the broadcast channels used by over-the-air television stations. The project was preserved by provisions of payroll tax legislation signed by President Obama in February. The second, proposed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in March, aims to allow commercial users to share spectrum with government transmitters such as the Defense Department and Coast Guard. Both approaches rely on the rise of software-defined radios and other new technologies which employ technological solutions to avoid interference with other transmitters. New, innovative wireless devices may face barriers getting old technology and incumbent users to cooperate.

White spaces applications face geographic challenges. Television broadcasters can crowd more than half of the 49 available full-power channels available in some metro markets covering multiple cities (i.e.: San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland). New FCC auctions that will allow broadcasters to relinquish some or all of their bandwidth in exchange for portions of auction revenue could also limit the available white spaces spectrum. These factors, teamed with rules to protect broadcasters from interference, may limit the success of potential urban “super WiFi” deployments that have been touted by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.


The spectrum sharing proposal may face challenges in working with government spectrum users. The DOD, for example, employs a variety of spectrum across the country for different purposes, ranging from communication with drones to conventional radio. This leaves some federal users with little incentive to begin sharing spectrum with new devices that might disrupt critical military and government technologies.

With such a crowded playing field, startups need to be keenly aware of how the federal government is regulating spectrum. The impact of regulation will be vast. Even if this technology doesn’t reach the hands of consumers, opportunities to develop enterprise applications for logistics, fleet management, and smart grid are just a few examples of the potential opportunities for innovators to build products on reliable, free-to-access airwaves.

Engine aims to advance the debate on wireless regulation next week. We invite you to attend the event if you’re in the area or watch the live stream.