THE BLOG

Fourth and Long on DC Spectrum Impasse

02/15/2012 04:04 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2012

In the final minutes of Sunday's Superbowl, Eli Manning confidently led his team down the field and into the end zone. Tom Brady, under heavy pressure from the clock, was unable to do the same. One rose to the occasion and found glory. Time ran out for the other, leaving only painful regrets.

Policymakers from the FCC to Capitol Hill now face a similar 'do-or-die' moment for U.S. mobile innovation. It's been more than two years since Federal Communications Commission Chairman warned of a "looming spectrum crisis," and one year since President Obama proclaimed near-universal mobile connectivity essential to the state of our union and made his ambitious call to make available 500 megahertz of spectrum to expand the mobile Internet.

In that time, mobile innovation--and consumer enthusiasm for it--have advanced at a blistering pace. U.S. smartphone shipments now outpace PCs. In the past two years, a whole new category of device has found its way into our backpacks and briefcases. From mid-December to January alone, the number of Americans with a tablet device doubled. One in three of us now own a mobile reading device. No wonder that there are now more wireless subscriptions than people in the U.S.

Against this backdrop of head-spinning innovation, spectrum policy has largely stood still in Washington. Today, U.S. mobile networks run at 80% of capacity, compared to the world average of 65%. As early as next year, according to the FCC, demand for our nation's mobile networks will begin to outstrip current capacity.

At stake is far more than bragging rights and diamond-encrusted rings. For consumers, Washington's failure to move the ball could mean more dropped calls, lost Internet connections, longer download times and--ultimately--a weaker wireless web. As innovation stalls due to inadequate supplies of spectrum, so would the jobs that the wireless community creates and sustains. Mobile innovation today supports 2.4 million Americans' livelihoods. Experts predict that President Obama's call for 500 MHz of additional spectrum can pump $400 billion into the nation's GDP. According to Deloitte, the $151 billion in private sector capital that carriers would need to invest to translate raw spectrum into robust 4G service could create as many 771,000 jobs while another study by economists Rob Shapiro and Kevin Hassett for progressive think tank NDN shows the creation of just over 1.5 million jobs from the transition to 3G networks and predicts similar growth in the transition to 4G.

More spectrum to expand wireless broadband networks is hardly just to accommodate our growing fondness for Angry Birds and Netflix. Mobile Internet has been revolutionary to businesses large and small. From enabling on-the-go financial transactions to making possible major innovations on manufacturing floors, wireless connectivity is boosting our economy and productivity, while opening the door to opportunities for the next generation of tech-minded entrepreneurs. And, population won't limit mobile's growth. By 2020, there could be 50 billion connected devices worldwide--from your child's textbook, to your doctor's medical tablet, to your city bus system and community power grid.

All of this represents progress that benefits our economy and society. But it has to be supported by constructive public policy. Mobile has thrived in this country largely because of bipartisan support for a largely hands-off innovation policy. But now leadership from the nation's capitol is essential to unlock more spectrum to stay in front of rising demand and maintain a world-class wireless web.

There are three key steps:

The first step is acknowledging the problem. The president, the FCC and Capitol Hill leaders all have done so. Their words--but not yet their actions--reflect the urgency of the situation.

Right now, the FCC is waiting on Congress to give the green light to voluntary spectrum auctions. This innovative approach would allow holders of idle spectrum, chief among them broadcasters who now work in a digital environment and can continue to broadcast on other spectrum, to put their spectrum holdings up for public auction and share with the U.S. Treasury in the multi-billion-dollar proceeds.

Here, we hope that no one's writing in Sharpie on the white board. The hold up revolves primarily around a tussle between Congress and the FCC over whether the agency should and can impose restrictions on who can participate in these auctions. U.S. wireless policy has served our nation and our economy well under a light regulatory touch that is neutral, transparent and inclusive.
Where government has stepped in to establish special rules to advantage specific interests, wireless consumers and taxpayers alike have suffered. Now is the time to take idle spectrum off the sidelines and put it into the hands of companies who can and want to build it out to provide more and better wireless broadband services to millions of Americans. Congress needs to establish the policy and the FCC needs to stand ready to promptly implement. One oft overlooked detail is the fact that there will be multiple opportunities to bid on all different kinds of spectrum in auctions with multiple winners, assuming the agency receives the authority to conduct them.

Some argue that only the least popular wireless companies should be able to bid on new spectrum. This suggestion ill-serves the millions of Americans who've decided they prefer the two industry leaders for their wireless broadband connections and devices. Policymakers would be wise to think in terms of all consumers--who should all be eligible for the many benefits of robust mobile broadband. Also, the point is moot.

We also need to keep our options open and turn over every rock. Government, too, should identify and offer up its fallow spectrum.

If Washington fumbles at the 10-yard line, there are many U.S. rivals eager to seize the mantle of mobile leadership. Our citizens are among the most vigorous users of all things wireless--from voice, to texting, to data consumption. And, competition among service providers has triggered $322 billion and counting of private sector investment in our nation's wireless infrastructure.

The next wave of U.S. mobile innovation now waits on Washington. Mobile entrepreneurs and consumers have thrown a perfect spiral down the field. In the now infamous words of Gisele Bundchen, someone's got to catch it.

Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, has been founding CEO of leading technology, media, and research companies, including Public Insight, Snocap, and Atmedica Worldwide. He served as an advisor to and spokesperson for Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration.

Mobile Future is a 501(c)(4) coalition comprised of and supported by technology businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals dedicated to advocating for an environment in which innovations in wireless technology and services are enabled and encouraged. For a full list of members and sponsors and to learn more about the coalition, go to www.mobilefuture.org.