White House Needs to Shake Loose Underutilized Government Spectrum

In January of 2011, President Obama's vision for the State of our Union included a bold objective of digital inclusion that could help virtually all Americans more fully participate in our connected economy. "Within the next five years," he pledged, "we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98% of all Americans."

The ambitious declaration represented a solid follow-through on the lofty goals laid out in the FCC's National Broadband Plan nine months' prior. That plan included the essential objective of identifying 500 MHZ of additional mobile spectrum capacity to support exponential growth in the wireless web. The president's choice of the hallowed annual address to declare the drive to near-universal connectivity sent an unequivocal message: We mean business.

For that reason, you could hear a pin drop at a recent conference, when the following comment was made: "It's clear we aren't going to get close to the 300 MHz goal by 2015 laid out in the plan, never mind the longer-term goal of 500 MHz by 2020." Who said it? None other than Blair Levin, chief architect of the administration's National Broadband Plan.

What happened between the president's bully pulpit moment and Levin's bubble-bursting analysis? Congress recently authorized the Federal Communications Commission to proceed with voluntary incentive auctions, where those who hold these underutilized spectrum assets (largely broadcasters who were given spectrum by the government decades ago at no cost) can choose to put them up for auction and share in the billion-dollar proceeds. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has shown leadership in his efforts both to raise awareness about the need for more mobile spectrum as well as to identify underutilized broadcast spectrum holdings which can immediately be repurposed for use by America's wireless consumers. But this alone won't fill the gap. Spectrum cannot be manufactured. Technology is making it more efficient. But it remains a finite resource. Beyond the broadcasters, the other great bastion of underutilized spectrum lies within the federal government itself.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) recently released a report outlining a transition plan to reallocate underutilized government spectrum for commercial mobile broadband use. NTIA identified numerous federal agencies sitting atop prime swaths of wireless spectrum. The characteristics of the spectrum identified make it uniquely well-suited for use by American consumers and our economy and could be put to better use while other spectrum is designated for government use. This spectrum transfer can be accomplished in ways that will maintain our national security and efficient government operations, while simultaneously enhancing our economy, and reducing the deficit: a veritable policy trifecta.

Yet there is little sense of urgency. The government-led transition to make more mobile spectrum available will take many years, which could quickly translate into substantial consequences for American consumers, businesses of all sizes and our nation's technology leadership. Today, there are more wireless connections than people in our country. In addition to leading the world in mobile innovation, the U.S. also leads on a more ominous metric. North American wireless networks are running at 80% capacity, compared to the global average of 65%. If more spectrum is not brought online quickly, then dropped calls, slower downloads, failed applications and more will increasingly be the outcome of an environment that plunges quickly into greater and greater spectrum scarcity. According to the FCC, the first wave of these impacts could come as early as next year.

And, still we wait on Washington.

If answered, the call for 500 MHz of spectrum will allow a wide range of wireless competitors to provide their customers with the level of connectivity that both consumers and the American economy alike have come to expect -- and to rely upon.

The private sector is doing everything it can -- from investing in research into ways to use existing spectrum assets more efficiently to pursuing secondary market transactions that, if allowed by the federal government, can help meet near-term consumer needs. But the private sector alone cannot address the mounting challenge. Government, too, has to step up to the plate and free its own spectrum.

Any passing student of Washington knows that this transition is not likely to happen without substantial institutional resistance. Neither the FCC nor NTIA have the clout to break through the federal bureaucracy. That kind of imperative to act can only come from the top. Ultimately, the White House -- and likely the president himself -- will need to insist that government agencies act for the greater good and put their spectrum to better use for American consumers.

This will require the expense of political capital. Economically and politically, it is capital well spent. Today, U.S. consumers and businesses largely take our mobile connectivity for granted. It is incumbent on all political leaders to ensure this never changes. President Obama was right to set an ambitious objective. The time has come to deliver.

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Jonathan Spalter, chairman 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.

Mobile Future is a 501(c)(4) coalition comprised of and supported by technology businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals dedicated to advocating for an environment in which innovations in wireless technology and services are enabled and encouraged. For a full list of members and sponsors and to learn more about the coalition, go to www.mobilefuture.org.