Making the Most of the Wireless Spectrum

Today the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its latest report, Realizing the Full Potential of Government-Held Spectrum to Spur Economic Growth, which provides valuable insight on innovative ways to meet President Obama’s goal of maintaining and enhancing American leadership in cutting-edge wireless services — an important part of this Administration’s overall strategy to create jobs and increase growth.  

America already leads the world in the availability of advanced 4G wireless broadband Internet services such as LTE; almost two-thirds of the global subscriber base for 4G LTE is right here in the United States. With global mobile data volumes more than doubling every year in the past four years and continued growth expected, wireless technology has great potential to be an important part of America’s ongoing economic recovery. New wireless networks are creating good jobs as companies invest tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure development. And these networks are serving as a platform for hundreds of thousands of additional jobs created by the apps and services riding on top of the mobile Internet.  

Wireless is also making our world better. Wireless innovation means that medical patients can be monitored and diagnosed from their homes, energy companies can read meters and track down network disruptions without rolling trucks, and merchandise vendors can distribute goods more efficiently. The government is also taking advantage of wireless innovation by developing and investing in new systems to aid in defense, public safety, border patrol, and aviation.

Recognizing the imperative of the wireless revolution, President Obama took action more than two years ago to ensure that American businesses could continue to meet the skyrocketing demand for wireless services.  In June 2010 the President directed the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to collaborate with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to find 500 MHz of spectrum held by Federal and nonfederal users that could be repurposed for wireless broadband Internet service within 10 years—about doubling the amount currently available—including for sharing of spectrum between Federal and nonfederal users.  We have already identified over 200 MHz of Federal spectrum that could be freed up, agencies plan a preliminary report on another 195 MHz later this year, and the President proposed and signed into law legislation that allows the FCC to use incentive auctions to free up substantially more prime spectrum.  

Spectrum sharing can take a number of forms, but its purpose is to ensure that when the primary user does not need the spectrum, another party can put it to good use, as opposed to allowing it to remain fallow.  For example, while a government communications or radar system may depend on spectrum being available in certain places at specific times, that spectrum can be freed up for commercial purposes at other times and places while respecting the paramount needs of the Federal system. The FCC has already begun to put this approach into practice, for example by allowing wireless broadband services to be provided over unused broadcast TV channels. The PCAST report also identifies more advanced, dynamic forms of spectrum sharing, and new system architectures that are emerging as well.

We are inspired by the PCAST’s goal of expanding the development and use of new spectrum-sharing technologies. We believe it is essential to encourage the use of sharing technologies, so are working right now to identify opportunities for industry and government to come together around new technologies and business models. As part of this effort, we have tasked the Commerce Department’s private-sector spectrum advisory committee to develop real sharing solutions in one particularly promising spectrum band (the 1755 – 1850MHz band, for the cognoscenti out there).

Employing these sharing techniques means there will be more spectrum available for broadband providers serving consumers and businesspeople on the go, making more and better uses of their smartphones, tablets, and other wireless devices.  In addition to increasing productivity and convenience for end users, greater spectrum availability creates jobs for American innovators engaged in app development, content creation, and network design and buildout.

Spectrum sharing brings challenges of its own, requiring careful coordination between users to avoid harmful interference.  In some cases, the simpler approach may be for Federal agencies to relocate their systems entirely out of their existing spectrum bands into alternative bands (or to find non-spectrum-based means of fulfilling their missions).  This wholesale clearing of Federal systems can free up appealing spectrum bands for exclusive access by broadband providers, generating added revenues for the U.S. Treasury via FCC-administered spectrum auctions.  In any given case, these benefits will need to be weighed against the costs, delays, and potential disruptions that may be associated with sharing, depending upon the nature of the Federal systems involved.

The Administration has been aggressively pursuing other means of putting spectrum to its highest and best use for all Americans, starting with broadband grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and continuing through this year’s signing by the President of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. That Act expands the authority of the FCC to auction spectrum and directs some of the auction proceeds to the design and buildout of a nationwide broadband network for our Nation’s first responders.  It also preserves FCC discretion to reserve spectrum for lower-powered unlicensed use, such as wifi--another form of spectrum sharing that has already generated billions of dollars in productivity, created new jobs, and transformed the way Americans work, communicate, and educate and entertain themselves.

We are extremely grateful for the dedicated work of the members of the PCAST and are confident that their report will help lead to continuing expansion and improvement of broadband-based services going forward.

Jason Furman is the Deputy Director of the National Economic Council. John Holdren is Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and co-chair of PCAST. 


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