What the Spectrum Announcement Means

This morning, as any listener to WBAL news in Baltimore will attest, I fell victim to the spectrum crunch. In the middle of a live interview about Robert Byrd, my cell phone cut out. I re-established contact. It cut out again. Miles away, in downtown Washington, Larry Summers was indirectly trying to help me out. He announced that the government will open 500 megahertz of spectrum in anticipation of the coming data crunch. We all kind of intuitively understand what's happening: the more data people use from cell phones and other mobile devices, the more we clog the "tubes," so we need more infrastructure.

That infrastructure comes in the form of electromagnetic radiation, specifically radio waves. (Yes, Michelle Bachmann, the government controls a property of physics.) We use a finite band of radio wave frequencies to convey information. It's those frequencies that are being overwhelmed by our growing reliance on mobile communication. We're in a 3G world now, but AT&T and Verizon and others are quickly creating the technological infrastructure for a faster 4G world. Existing space for commercial providers will run out quickly unless more spectrum is found. (The government thinks spectrum use could be at least 20 times greater in 2015 than in 2009.) 

So, if the amount of spectrum is finite, where does the government get more to give? Half will come from existing commercial allocations and a little under half will come from spectrum that the government once anticipated it needed, but no longer does.

Thanks to technological advances, it's easier now to transmit data on frequencies that are closer to each other. For example, spectrum used by the government for mobile satellites and by telecom providers for wireless communications can be used much more efficiently, particularly if the newer sources are digital, rather than analog.

Another big source of unused spectrum is the broadcasting industry. They've got 300 megahertz but only use 150; the government wants to auction the unused portion with some of the proceeds going to the industry, and some of it going to public safety, infrastructure and even deficit reduction.

Congress, however, has to permit that financial allocation. Today's announcement is a way of saying, in essence, that the executive branch is moving forward and Congress needs to follow.

Politically, the administration gets to argue that the majority of its new spectrum use will benefit commercial providers and create new jobs. And it gets to talk about reducing the so-called Broadband Gap between rural and urban areas, and between poorer and wealthier communities.