Progress on Spectrum Inventory…if Only Illusory

by on March 3, 2011 · 8 comments

I’ve written posts today for both CNET and Forbes on legislation introduced yesterday by Senators Olympia Snowe and John Kerry that would require the FCC and NTIA to complete inventories of existing spectrum allocations.  These inventories were mandated by President Obama last June (after Congress failed to pass legislation), but got lost at the FCC in the net neutrality armageddon.

Everyone believes that without relatively quick action to make more spectrum available, the mobile Internet could seize up.  Given the White House’s showcasing of wireless as a leading source of new jobs, investment, and improved living conditions for all Americans, both Congress and President Obama, along with the FCC and just about everyone else, knows this is a crisis that must be avoided.

Indeed, the National Broadband Plan estimates conservatively that mobile users will need 300-500 mhz of new spectrum over the next 5-10 years.

The last major auction, however, conducted in 2008 for analog spectrum given up by broadcasters in the Digital TV transition, was only 62 mhz.  And that process took years.

So while auctions–perhaps of more of the over-the-air allocations–could help, it can’t be the silver bullet.  We’ll need creative solutions–including technology to make better use of existing allocations, spectrum sharing, release of government-held frequencies.

But why not start by figuring out who has spectrum now, and see if it’s really being put to the use that’s in the best interests of American consumers, who are ultimately the owners of the entire range.

You can guess why some people would prefer not to open that dialogue.

And perhaps why something so obvious as an inventory doesn’t already exist.

  • Steve Crowley

    I agree the spectrum inventory should be completed, now, and in a thorough manner.

    I don’t think the mobile internet is on the verge of seizing up. I suspect the FCC’s own model (and inputs) used to estimate a 300 MHz spectrum deficit by 2014 overestimates that deficit by 1) underestimating offloading of broadband data by Wi-Fi and other technologies, 2) not adequately considering the possibility of technological improvements that will reduce spectrum requirements, 3) overestimating the amount of streaming video that will be sent on 3G and 4G networks, and 4) assuming the continuation of flat-rate all-you-can-eat rate plans by the operators.

  • Darrin Mylet

    I concur with Mr. Crowley above and would like to add some recommendations the CSMAC made on this matter.

  • Darrin Mylet
  • Larry

    Thanks for the clarifications, Steve. (1) and (2) do seem likely silver linings. (3) and (4), on the surface, don’t seem to me so obvious.

  • Steve Crowley

    Taking point 4 first, we’re seeing operators move from flat-rate to other rate plans generally in some form of pay-as-you-go, so demand will go down, especially as Wi-Fi options become more prevalent. Mobile broadband can then do more of what it was designed to do, which is not stream Netflix.

    To point 3, the issue is that forecasts used as inputs to the model predict a large percentage of mobile broadband traffic to be video by 2014 — 66% in the case of Cisco’s forecast. Because of the revised rate plans, users will be incented to offload. If you dig into that Cisco report, much of that 66% is predicted to be laptops with mobile broadband dongles. It seems to me many places you would use a laptop, there’s Wi-Fi, so why not offload to something cheaper.

    I like the model’s framework a lot. It is just the inputs and some assumptions I have issues with. I hope to expand on these points and socialize them more in the technology policy community in the not too distant future, and get the benefit of its input.

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