The U.S. faces a critical threat to our mobile future – we are running out of the commercial spectrum that carries our messages, emails, Instagrams, Snapchats, videos, and other data from our mobile devices to the rest of the Internet. Between the growth in data-hungry services like video, and the explosion in the number of Internet-of-Things-devices, the demands placed on wireless networks are growing exponentially. Unfortunately, after the FCC holds its spectrum auction early next year, there are no more auctions on the horizon to meet those needs. That’s a major problem because experts predict the wireless industry will require more than 350 MHz of licensed spectrum to accommodate current projections of mobile wireless demand.
Fortunately, lawmakers recognize the problem. Last month, as part of Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (BBA’15), Congress took a first step towards creating a long-term supply of commercial spectrum. The Senate Commerce Committee may soon take the next step by working on bipartisan legislation that goes further to bridge the gap between Americans’ demand for mobile broadband and the available airwaves and infrastructure necessary to meet it. The Committee’s draft bill includes:
- Completing the President’s 2010 commitment to make a total of 500 MHz of spectrum available by 2020
- Expediting state and local approvals for cellular tower siting, as well as tower siting on federal lands.
- A “Dig Once” provision that requires municipalities to install broadband conduits during street construction projects, a bipartisan idea endorsed by Sens. Daines and Klobuchar, and Reps. Eshoo, Matsui and Walden.
- Offering incentives to agencies to identify opportunities for agencies to improve spectral efficiency.
Additionally, Sen. Brian Schatz has elevated the conversation on unlicensed spectrum with the introduction of his bill, the Promoting Unlicensed Spectrum Act. Among other things, Sen. Schatz’s bill would require Congress to strike a reasonable balance between licensed and unlicensed when allocating new commercial spectrum. Incorporating this concept from the Schatz bill, ensuring consideration of unlicensed spectrum in the legislative discussion, makes a lot of sense and would significantly expand the amount of airwaves available to fuel our 21st century digital economy.
Opportunities like this are rare on Capitol Hill. Spectrum legislation is one of the few policy issues that enjoys bipartisan support. It’s a win-win for government, industry and consumers. But, Congress needs to act quickly. If Congress fails to pass spectrum legislation by the first half of next year, the distraction of the upcoming presidential election, and delays that always accompany a new Administration and new Congress will needlessly displace an opportunity for Congress to secure a solid digital future for consumers. Given that it takes on average 13 years to deploy mobile broadband networks, Congress can’t act soon enough.
The U.S. wireless market is the global leader in 4G LTE, but other countries are already attempting to leapfrog over this accomplishment by moving on toward the next generation of wireless technology. Without a pipeline of new airwaves, we could easily find ourselves missing out on the next generation of wireless technology as the rest of the world moves onto a 5G future. Consumers are poised to greet the promise of a mobile broadband future that’s already knocking at their doors. They shouldn’t have to wait almost another two years before Congress unlocks that door by passing spectrum pipeline legislation.