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What The Consumer Electronics Show Taught About Wireless Spectrum

Growing wireless dependence has also focused attention on a looming threat to our wireless future -- lack of available spectrum to handle all the mobile data.
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More than 100,000 people descended on Las Vegas for last week's annual Consumer Electronics Show. While the sale of tech devices is expected to shrink this year (see here), what's beyond doubt is that Americans' wireless love affair continues its meteoric growth.

Look no further than this post by Scientific American editor Larry Greenemeier: "5 Technologies to Watch for at This Week's Consumer Electronics Show." His top technologies for the future: 3-D printing, ultra-high definition TVs, phablets, wearables, and driverless cars. Of these five developing technologies, three depend heavily on mobile connections.

Yet looking beyond the Vegas Convention Center glitz, it's clear that Americans already have made the mobile web a crucial part of their lives. Mobile shopping accounted for about 40 percent of online traffic during the post-Thanksgiving shopping madness, according to IBM, and about 22 percent of sales were made with mobile devices. In both cases, these figures grew by more than a third from 2012 levels.

As a recent USA Today headline summarized, "Net activity shifts as smartphones become the norm."

This growing wireless dependence has also focused attention on a looming threat to our wireless future -- lack of available spectrum to handle all the mobile data. As AT&T's John Donovan put it during a CES panel discussion, "Spectrum is the life blood of an industry that is the oxygen of commerce."

Donovan noted that companies often map out wireless devices and demand 10 years into the future. But if there's a lack of available spectrum to handle those devices' data, you get uncertainty and that clearly impacts job growth.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel emphasized that same point during her own CES appearance, telling reporters, "Spectrum is a scarce resource. We need to find ways to repurpose more to fuel this revolution."

Our rapidly changing demands show just how much urgency there is for FCC officials to move faster on freeing up spectrum for our mobile use. This is much more than just an academic or legal issue. Freeing sufficient spectrum to keep up with consumer demands is the single most important issue facing regulators at the FCC. It has implications far beyond wireless users craving an uninterrupted Pandora or Netflix stream. Sufficient spectrum is a crucial foundation to maintain America's wireless app industry, which is responsible for 752,000 jobs as of last year.

Under the leadership of new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC has committed itself to holding its next major spectrum auction by mid-2015. That's a laudable goal and it's important that the Commission keep to that deadline. Some voices in Washington are calling for the FCC to adopt complicated regulations governing the spectrum auction process. This would favor some providers over others, allowing some to buy spectrum at reduced prices. The upshot of such a scheme is obvious: bureaucratic delays, corporate favoritism and billions in losses to U.S. taxpayers, since auction proceeds go to the U.S. Treasury.

The best way to stay on track is to keep auction rules as simple and uniform as possible, allowing all carriers to bid without restriction for the spectrum they need to meet consumer demand.

If last week's CES extravaganza -- and especially FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel's comments -- taught anything, it's the rapidly changing dynamic that guides consumer taste. No one can predict our future preferences in electronics, which is why regulators should avoid the temptation to shackle a bunch of regulations on next year's spectrum auction.