White House Council Recommends New Approach to Spectrum


A group of advisors urged President Obama to take take new steps to open federally-controlled spectrum for commercial applications on July 20. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology -- a group that includes administration technologists, academics, and executives of technology companies -- recommended the President direct the government to share underutilized spectrum allocated to a variety of federal agencies.

“Shared spectrum” combines elements of the exclusive license system and unlicensed regimes. While the government may need to use spectrum to communicate with drones or operate radar in some areas, in others the spectrum is fallow. The new system would allow for the development of new devices on these chunks of underutilized airwaves.

The report emphasizes the ability of policymakers to shift the present spectrum crunch “from scarcity to abundance.” This theme is meant to convey the opportunity shared spectrum provides in alleviating the demand for wireless services. I wrote about this subject ahead of an event on unlicensed spectrum co-hosted by Engine a few weeks ago.

Spectrum is one of the most important public assets innovative companies can harness to create disruptive new products. Wireless device use has exploded in the last decade with the development of WiFi and the expansion of mobile technologies that drive the advancement of smartphones, tablets, and other consumer wireless services. Startups play a critical role in the wireless ecosystem, developing applications that maximize the value of these services to users and creating new devices for consumers and enterprises.

Spectrum ownership and regulation have evolved over the last decade. While wireless providers have become increasingly consolidated -- the Justice Department deemed there to be only four “national” carriers in its move to block AT&T’s purchase of T-Mobile in 2011 -- technologies allowing various users to share airwaves have advanced rapidly. These developments have elicited calls for regulators to accommodate innovative technologies while freeing more and more spectrum for wireless carriers, agendas that haven’t always worked well together.

The advisors recommend increased incentives to open the public airwaves for experimentation, noting that the process of moving incumbent users and organizing auctions for wireless carriers is “unsustainable.” Clearing the spectrum occupied by federal agencies has proven to be a painstaking process. Allowing federal and commercial users to harness software-defined radios and other technologies could bring more spectrum to startups faster.

Innovative technologies certainly offer the promise of a freer wireless future but obstacles remain. As the Wireless Innovation Alliance said in a press release, “The PCAST report is an important first step, but there is more work to be done in order to ensure more efficient use and expanded access to the nation’s spectrum resources.”

An encouraging aspect of the recommendations is the intent to let innovation, not incumbents, drive the future wireless landscape. Wireless carriers play a critical role in connecting users, businesses, and entrepreneurs, but they don’t play the only role. Striking the appropriate policy balance is challenging, but a generation of innovators is waiting for new spectral resources to open.

Image: The White House