04/10/2014 01:56 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

What the FCC Can Learn from UConn on Spectrum

It doesn't take a face-painting UConn fan to know that NCAA championships are won by a deep bench and strong team. You need a full complement of skilled players working together if you want to cut down that net after the final buzzer. The same can be said of our nation's spectrum challenge. We need every tool in our arsenal to post a win for consumers. And, unlike college basketball, the mobile innovation game is never over.

When it comes to wireless, ours is the most data-hungry nation on earth. By 2018, U.S. mobile data traffic will reach 2.7 exabytes a month, equivalent to 675 million DVDs. The nation's leading wireless carriers are racing to keep pace--investing more than $34 billion in 2013 alone--to ensure our nation's mobile infrastructure remains the envy of the world.

Now, all eyes in the mobile innovation community are on the FCC's May meeting and the expected release of rules for the long-awaited 600MHz spectrum auction. As Congress envisioned, the FCC seems poised to maximize and reclaim underused airwaves from the broadcasters and repurpose them for mobile use. A successful 600 MHz auction will make more licensed spectrum available for U.S. wireless providers so they can keep up with the full court press of consumers and our economy.

Wireless providers spend billions of dollars for licensed airwaves and billions more to build out mobile networks that leverage the spectrum capacity to advance fast, reliable wireless broadband service. This helps keep mobile consumers one step ahead of the loading symbol of doom.

In a nation where 45% of households have "cut the cord," ensuring wireless providers have enough licensed spectrum to meet the growing demands of their consumers is mission-critical work. And, we know from demographic research that minority communities historically on the wrong side of the digital divide are today leading the way on mobile adoption. For those most likely to rely on mobile to connect to the Internet, additional licensed spectrum is critical. The 600MHz band is prime spectrum in terms of enabling wireless service providers to meet the fast-growing demands of the nation's 300 million wireless subscribers. The FCC also recently moved forward with plans to make available another 65 MHz of licensed spectrum in AWS that will add important new capacity.

Wisely, the FCC also is simultaneously moving to advance unlicensed spectrum in higher bands. Unlicensed spectrum powers the wi-fi we use at home, the local coffee shop, the airport and more. It plays an important role easing the traffic burden on U.S. wireless networks. In a good step forward, the FCC last week made an additional 100 MHz of unlicensed spectrum available in the 5 GHz band and is getting ready to free up more unlicensed airwaves in the 3.5 GHz band.

Both licensed and unlicensed spectrum have starting positions to play in solving the spectrum puzzle. But they are not created equal. I'd liken unlicensed spectrum to a solid, three-point shooter--hugely additive, but not a stand-alone solution.

The FCC's dual approach--repurposing as much licensed spectrum as possible with the 600 MHz auction and AWS-3 auction while unlocking higher frequencies for unlicensed spectrum--offers a strong indicator that the Commission is working smart from a technological perspective to maximize the quantity and quality of mobile connectivity for consumers. As the clock runs down to the May meeting, if the FCC keeps its eye on the ball, then the nation will reap the benefits of a well-rounded spectrum solution--and hear the satisfying swish of nothin' but net.


Mobile Future Chair Jonathan Spalter, a technology executive and former senior federal government national security official, leads a coalition of technology companies/stakeholders dedicated to increasing investment and innovation in the burgeoning U.S. wireless sector.