Spectrum for Brighter Mobile Future

With a Japanese investment group poised to buy one of America's leading wireless companies, tablet sales expected to grow nearly 70 percent this year, and now more mobile subscriptions in the United States than citizens, there is no doubt the U.S. wireless market - and our parallel demand for the electromagnetic spectrum which fuels it - is white hot.

America's mobile innovation ecosystem quickly has emerged as one of the brightest and most dynamic parts of our national economy. With the U.S. accounting for more than half of the world's 4G LTE customers and Apple and Google's mobile operating systems now embedded on nearly 90 percent of the cell phones in the world, is there anything that can slow down America's mobile momentum?

Yes. Our government.

By far the gravest risk for spectrum-hungry American wireless consumers is that U.S. government agencies - which still hold the lion's share of available spectrum in the U.S. - have yet to heed President Obama's order to give up some underutilized swaths of this precious resource quickly enough so it can be used for our mobile economy, our businesses, our schools, our hospitals, and our communities.

The fact is that our government has cornered the market for spectrum in our nation. According to a recent White House report, the majority of our country's available spectrum resources - nearly 60 percent - are held by government agencies at places like the Pentagon, and Interior and Agriculture Departments - and much of that spectrum is underused or not used at all.

That is why one of the most closely watched conversations in DC tech policy circles this summer is how best to clear and reallocate government spectrum to support American mobile users and their rapidly growing appetites for wireless. This week, Congress will have the chance to weigh in on the future of mobile and particularly how best to free up additional spectrum for commercial wireless use in a House Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing.

Just six years after the introduction of the iPhone, three years since the rise of tablets, and one year since the widespread availability of 4G LTE, the mobile market is transforming every aspect of our lives. These new technologies, services and applications are driving economic growth across the country and creating new opportunities in every community in the nation. With the value of wireless connectivity to consumers clear, more than three years ago President Obama laid out his National Wireless Initiative to free up an additional 500 MHz of spectrum for mobile use to ensure continued growth and put wireless spectrum to its highest use.

This was a bold step, but there is much work still to be done. So far, not a single megahertz of government spectrum has been reallocated for consumer use. The process is long and slow, say some government agencies, and success is measured in years, not months.

But the clock, meanwhile, is ticking loudly. The Administration itself has warned that with current rates of growth in consumer demand, the country could face a spectrum crunch as early as next year.

The President's focused and direct leadership, therefore, is both timely and urgently needed. Cisco's latest mobile data forecast projects that, between today and 2017, American consumers will gobble up 50% more data. That's simply unmanageable without more spectrum to support the additional traffic. To help illustrate, Cisco execs have compared the situation to adding 50% more traffic on the Washington Beltway without adding additional lanes, leading to complete mobile gridlock. Freeing up government spectrum is an important part of the solution, along with successfully and simply designed and executed spectrum incentive auctions to repurpose broadcast spectrum for mobile use.

Last year, Congress wisely stepped in to pass legislation authorizing the FCC to move forward with the incentive auctions. This week's hearing will hopefully shine light on how best to move forward to free up government spectrum.

Already American wireless networks are running at 80% capacity, well above the global average, and are inching perilously forward to being maxed out if more spectrum does not come on line soon. To maintain our global leadership and continued connectivity, leaders from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue - and from the corner offices of the government buildings which mark the DC skyline - must get this right and work together to ensure a bright mobile future for American innovators and wireless users.

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Jonathan Spalter, chair of Mobile Future (www.mobilefuture.org), has been founding CEO of leading technology, media, and research companies, including Public Insight, Snocap, and Atmedica Worldwide. He served in the Clinton Administration as a Director on the National Security Council.