A Spectrum Needle in the Budget Haystack

Last week's freshly minted two-year budget deal on Capitol Hill offers plenty for talking heads to debate, praise and decry. But buried within its 144 pages is a mild-mannered wireless provision that has gone largely unnoticed in the initial media blitz. The provision aims squarely at the alarming and growing gap between Americans' rapidly rising mobile broadband usage and the absence of a long- or even mid-term plan for the nation to continue expanding wireless spectrum capacity to keep pace.

Supported by the White House and enacted by a Republican-led Congress, this language requires the Federal Communications Commission to auction airwaves controlled by U.S. government agencies by 2024. It also backs this directive with resources, appropriating up to $500 million to help agencies navigate the complex work of identifying frequencies that can be made available and relocating their mobile activities to other spectrum bands. In addition to making room to help accommodate the fast-growing bandwidth demand, auctioning these airwaves also would bring billions of dollars into federal coffers.

The specific "ask" of this provision is modest. It requires the government to shake loose just 30 MHz of its vast and often underutilized spectrum holdings and allows nearly 10 years to get these precious resources to the auction block. This is "one small step for mobile." But it will take more than 10 times that over a much swifter timeline -- the first term of our next president -- to constitute a genuine "leap for mobile-kind."

Already, there are more mobile connections than people in our country. By decade's end as many as 50 billion "things'" will connect wirelessly -- making sentient virtually every tool within our grasp -- from cars to thermostats, hotel rooms to hospital beds. And, the wild popularity of mobile video exponentially compounds the looming spectrum crunch. Consider this: Watching five minutes of live Periscope video on a smartphone is equivalent to nearly two hours of Web surfing. Now multiply that by the fact that consumers watch more than three billion videos on wireless devices each day -- on Facebook alone.

Keeping our nation's spectrum capacity above this fast-rising tide is a daunting challenge. We have zero shot without the ability to tap into a far greater number of the estimated 240,000 frequency assignments controlled by federal agencies. We need an "all of the above" approach -- more spectrum, more network investment and relentless innovation. Wireless engineers stand ready to deliver, and so must policymakers.

Early next year, the FCC will conduct its much-anticipated incentive auctions of broadcaster-held spectrum. This will mark the third and final auction mandated by Congress in 2012. One idea on Capitol Hill is the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act, which applies the same principal of incentives to obtain more spectrum for wireless broadband from Federal entities. Sponsored by Brett Guthrie (R-KY), with bipartisan co-sponsorship from Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Doris Matsui (D-CA), the bill would allow U.S. agencies that relinquish spectrum to repurpose the revenues into their programs. It's an idea that has many intrigued and could gather momentum if the Q1 2016 broadcast incentive auctions prove a success. And in other positive news, Senator John Thune (R-SD), the Chair of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee, is now circulating draft legislation to help increase the amount of spectrum available for mobile use.

After a series of bruising and divisive battles in the technology arena, long-term spectrum planning is one 'white hat' issue all sides should be able to squarely get behind. In a country that leads the world in mobile data usage, where 87% of millennials say their smartphone never leaves their side and 61% admit to using our mobile devices in the restroom, voters may be fickle in their approval ratings of the various political candidates, but they remain steadfast in their love of mobile connectivity.

As our politics grow more partisan in the run-up to next year's presidential elections -- now almost precisely one year away -- having a credible plan to address the spectrum gap should be one essential litmus test of whether candidates indeed have the chops to help grow and advance our innovation economy.

This obscure budget provision shows bipartisan potential. We need more fresh thinking if we are to rise to the growing challenge of sustaining a bright mobile future. Like the proverbial needle in the haystack, the search is worth the efforts. Otherwise, it's only a matter of time before someone -- or, more aptly, every someone with a smartphone -- feels the pinch.