Mobile matters

By: David Young

The Internet is a powerful tool to mobilize people for a cause, but the reality is that the Internet itself has been “mobilized.” Smartphones and tablets, with their large, high-resolution screens, powerful microprocessors and fast broadband connectivity, are rapidly becoming the primary means of connecting to the Internet. Pew Research found that 64 percent of adults in the U.S. use smartphones, and for almost 20 percent of the population smartphones may be the only broadband connection in the home.

All of those devices are downloading a lot of data. Internet traffic from mobile apps has already overtaken traffic from PCs, and Cisco’s annual survey estimates that in 2014 mobile broadband traffic reached 2.5 exabytes per month, the equivalent of streaming Netflix’s entire HD film catalog more than 7,500 times. By 2019, experts predict mobile data traffic will be nearly six times 2014 data amounts.  We’ve become so addicted to our devices that a 2015 Bank of America study found that almost 75 percent of respondents sleep next to their mobile phones!

Mobility is also transforming the way we live. Mobile broadband is closing the digital divide, making lack of a computer less of a barrier to going online. It is changing the way media is distributed and consumed; opening entirely new lines of innovation, such as the “apps economy” and the Internet of Things. These innovations are creating new opportunities to address societal challenges, such as more efficient energy management, better access to healthcare with telemedicine, and smarter schools. But all of these new uses for mobile broadband require access to spectrum – a resource that is finite and not easy to come by.

The essential ingredient for making mobile broadband work is radio spectrum. You can’t see it, touch it or smell it, but spectrum is what connects your smartphone to your mobile-service provider or Wi-Fi hotspots. The continued growth of the mobile Internet depends both on using the spectrum we have more efficiently, but also making more spectrum available.

The FCC has cleared 135 MHz of spectrum over the past five years. And the upcoming broadcast incentive auction will repurpose some television broadcasting spectrum for mobile broadband. But after next year’s spectrum auction, there isn’t going to be anything left in the spectrum pipeline. We’re running out of the essential ingredient that’s driving the mobile revolution – spectrum.

Experts predict that the industry will need to bring between 350 MHz and 500 MHz of spectrum to market over the next five years just to keep up with current projections of consumer demand. That means Congress needs to act soon to allocate more commercial spectrum to meet consumers’ appetite for mobile broadband. We need Congress to act quickly because a Congressional mandate for more spectrum is just the first step in what can be as long as an 8 to 13-year process to bring spectrum to market.

Getting new spectrum is essential for the continued success of the mobile Internet. But it’s not enough. We must also innovate to find new ways to more efficiently use currently available spectrum. As good as the current technologies are, we must develop technologies that are even better at leveraging both licensed and unlicensed spectrum to keep America on the leading edge of the mobile broadband revolution. I’ll continue this discussion in my next post tomorrow.

About the author(s): 

David Young has an engineering background, which enables him to develop positions on emerging public policy issues and asses key technology and communications industry trends. Prior to 2000, he spent six years working in Verizon’s Research and Development (R&D) group on many advanced technologies including VoIP, data network architectures, and audio, video and image compression. He has been awarded ten U.S. government patents for his R&D work. David is a member of the IEEE and IEEE Communications Society.