Why Wireless Spectrum Matters

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There's a shortage of wireless spectrum in this country and nobody was talking about it until recently. The Brookings Institution went so far as to call it "the coming spectrum crisis" in the promotional materials for an event held in Washington, D.C., earlier today where five panelists gathered to discuss how to best allocate new spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has called for.

The FCC, under the leadership of chairman Julius Genachowski, recently passed an order to make under-utilized television spectrum available for other wireless transmission purposes. In its initial plan, the FCC asked for 300 MHz of spectrum to be freed up over the next five years, with an additional 200 MHz coming in the five years after that. The spectrum will be auctioned off in an as-yet-to-be-determined fashion and -- so the plan goes -- be used primarily for new connected devices.

"People are used to having information where they want it, when they want it," said Adele Morris, a fellow and policy director for Climate and Energy Economics at the Brookings Institution. "There are tremendous demands being placed on the network." And the network, as it stands, cannot currently handle those demands. People may have to start getting used to not having information where they want it, when they want it.

"I believe next year ... smartphones will outnumber regular phones," said Phil Weiser, who, as the senior advisor for technology and innovation to the National Economic Council director, represented the Obama administration on the panel. "To have this revolution in only six years is amazing." Add to that the number of iPads and tablet computing devices and other various electronics with wi-fi capabilities joining the network. "The demand for mobile data is insatiable," Weiser said.

Last year, when Genachowski first started warning of the coming crisis, he said that we should expect a 30-fold increase in traffic on wireless networks in the next few years. At the Brookings event, Ruth Milkman, the chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the FCC, predicted that, by 2015, Americans could be demanding as much as 50 times the amount of wireless data they were in 2009. "I have six laptops in my three-person home," Milkman noted.

I'm writing this on a Macbook laptop with wireless Internet. To my right, a Toshiba netbook. My left, an iPhone. I've been thinking of getting both an iPad and a Kindle.

But what good are all of these devices if the infrastructure doesn't exist to support them? What are the consequences of traffic jams on the Internet superhighway, as Ellen Goodman, a professor specializing in information policy law at Rutgers, put it?

They could be a lot worse than just not being able to play a mindless multiplayer game.

"This is an enabling structure," Weiser explained. We want our public safety officers to use nothing but the best. We want to encourage innovation and experimentation. And we want to stay internationally competitive. This is about consumer empowerment.

Sure, the government could pass legislation to limit how the spectrum is used and allocate it for fields, regions and users of the highest priority. But who gets to decide who and what fits the bill? If there's one thing this panel seemed to agree on it's that the government has a responsible to set up the infrastructure -- national imperative was tossed around a lot -- and then back off. "We don't tell people what to demand," said Morris. "It's not the government's job to tell them to use wired services and it's not the government's job to tell them not to use" the wireless spectrum to watch TV on a two-inch screen on the go.

"This should be much more of a free market than what it has been," successfully argued Morris, whose specialty is in the economics of policies related to natural resources. "If people will pay a market demand price, then let them do what they want."

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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