As the need for wireless spectrum continues to expand with the growing number of Internet connected Americans and their devices, appliances homes and even cars, the Federal Communications Commission — the federal agency charged with managing and allocating the finite airwaves — is still grappling to find the best way to distribute connectivity from the government, which holds the majority of the airwaves, to the commercial sector.
Federal Communications Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O’Rielly came together from across their Democratic and Republican respective divides at a tech conference in Washington this week to give their opinions on how the agency should go about satisfying companies’ and consumers’ need for greater and more competitive wireless access.
“We are cramming more uses into our airwaves than ever before,” Rosenworcel told the crowd at the FTC’s Techonomy Policy 2015 conference Tuesday. “And because the laws of physics aren’t going to change, we are going to have to find new ways to be more efficient with how we zone those airwaves.”
So far the FCC is tackling the issue through multiple avenues, including freeing up spectrum from government entities and auctioning it to wireless and broadband providers in January, buying back spectrum from television networks for an auction scheduled next year, and establishing bandwidth to be shared in tiers for wireless broadband access in April.
“With all of this new use of the airwaves, we’re going to have to think about them differently, come up with new ways to be more efficient, to cram more uses into this finite space,” Rosenworcel continued. “And I think the [President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] report really gave a jolt to that conversation by encouraging government to rethink its existing uses, by encouraging government to think how to take more of its spectrum and help repurpose it for commercial use, and how with that repurposing, we would think about models that were not only about exclusive use, but about shared use.”
President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) made recommendations to the FCC in 2012 on how to increase the availability of wireless spectrum for data use, which doubled from 2012 to 2013, and is projected to grow some 650 percent by 2018, according to Cisco. One of those recommendations was the recent April order, which reallocated waves in the 3.5 Gigahertz range previously used by the U.S. military for radar, and opened it up to wireless providers in small geographic areas across the U.S.
“The PCAST report was done before I got to the commission, so I’ve used it as a helpful tool,” O’Rielly said. “I’ve had some concerns on the 3.5. I support the item in it’s concepts, [but] I think there was some concerns that I had going forward.”
O’Rielly said the commission had thrown a lot of ideas into the 3.5 GHz plan, some of which will be difficult to determine success. The commissioner added he thought the agency rushed the part of the plan dealing with licensed and unlicensed use of the spectrum, which could potentially lead to frequency interference and troubled connectivity for some users.
“There isn’t a person in this room that hasn’t benefitted from unlicensed spectrum today,” Rosenworcel said. “It contributes about $140 billion in economic activity to the U.S. every year.”
Another issue with unlicensed spectrum — the frequencies used for WiFi, Bluetooth and other short-range broadcasts — is convincing Congress, which approves the spectrum auctions, to green-light setting aside spectrum that doesn’t generate immediate revenue, despite their long-term economic benefits.
“One of the things that I think is a big challenge for spectrum policy going forward is figuring out how we rationalize that division of holdings between commercial and government use,” Rosenworcel said. “Because much of the spectrum that the government controls for government critical missions was allocated decades ago when our spectrum technologies were not as efficient.”
To free up more space, Roseworcel said, the government needs to figure out how to be more efficient with the spectrum it retains, which is presently roughly 60 percent of all available bandwidth, and entice government entities with means to be more efficient with less.
“The challenge is, we don’t have a really good system for doing that,” Rosenworcel said. “So we knock on the door of federal users like the Department of Defense or the Federal Aviation Administration, and we beg folks and cajole them to give up a few more scraps for commercial use.”
O’Rielly added the FCC needs to use a carrot-and-stick incentive mentality to get more federal entities to give up more of their spectrum.
“I’ve worked in the political process, and I wouldn’t say that we were cajoling or asking them or knocking on the door and begging them — we were telling them, ‘You will give up spectrum.” And so I think going forward we’ll still have a forceful Congress seeking to reallocate spectrum.”
O’Rielly said one of those sticks could be tacking a price onto spectrum and enforcing a budgetary consequence for holding onto it. Rosenworcel added that establishing a system to value spectrum would also help.