Just as we cannot create land, the same constraint applies to electromagnetic spectrum, the real estate on which wireless communication is built. Interesting to Missouri, the congressional committee most equipped to address this modern-day limit includes both of the state’s senators, Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill.
Spectrum is the range of radio waves that can carry mobile signals — voice, image and data. And like the land that supports structures, spectrum supports our phones and their apps, remote education and health care and, in Missouri, a growing “precision agriculture” industry that can increase farm profitability by 1,900 percent per acre and improveg overall crop productivity by 15 percent.
These innovations and their economic vitality (they support 1.3 million jobs and $400 billion in annual economic activity) come so rapidly and pervasively that we often forget that it is spectrum that allows them to exist. Like land, there is only so much of it — the physical world provides only so wide a range of radio wave frequencies. But improvements in signal strength and compression have made better use of spectrum possible over time.
Technology alone can’t meet the surging demand, though. Cisco estimates that consumers demand for mobile data will grow more than six-fold in the next four years. The number of wearables and connected devices in the U.S. will be double the number of smartphones by 2019. Experts predict the U.S. will need to increase its existing supply of licensed spectrum by 50 percent in the near term.
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We are failing to keep up with this demand because of the policies that govern spectrum supply and allocation. The Federal Communications Commission’s main effort in this area is auctions in which spectrum is purchased from users such as on-air broadcasters and repackaged and sold to ambitious bidders. The auctions help, but they won’t fill the void. After next year’s auction, there isn’t any new spectrum identified to meet near- or long-term consumer needs.
The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 took a first step toward addressing this mismatch, but much more needs to be done. Government agencies have a great deal of spectrum — perhaps as much as 70 percent — and it’s not clear why they need it. The U.S. Mint, for example, has a slice of spectrum that is dedicated to connecting their Denver and Philadelphia centers, even though a multitude of private entities with equally important security needs have data systems that probably could meet that need without a dedicated allocation of spectrum.
Thankfully, a roadmap beyond the Budget Act does exist, in the Senate’s MOBILE NOW Act. Written by the head of the Senate Commerce Committee on which Blunt and McCaskill sit, the bill would increase the spectrum called for in the Budget Act by 66 percent. It would then codify President Barack Obama’s 2010 commitment to make 500 MHz — almost double the 645.5 MHz of spectrum currently licensed for broadband — available to the market.
The results could be profound. The most recent auction garnered $45 billion for the Treasury. Selling far more spectrum in the future would bring even more money in for vital programs.
For consumers, particularly the 41 percent of Missourians in “wireless only” households, more spectrum means faster and more reliable Internet access. It also could supplant the void of fixed, wireline Internet in rural corners of the state. All of this means empowerment — the ability for Missourians to go online and reach jobs, health care, education and the modern world at large.
But reallocating spectrum and deploying mobile broadband service is a long, technically complex process that takes on average 13 years. If leaders in Congress such as Blunt and McCaskill fail to pass spectrum legislation by the first half of 2016, when will they? With so much at stake, widespread bipartisanship in the area, and so little effort needed to make it happen, it would be tragic if we failed.
Ev Ehrlich served as undersecretary of commerce for President Bill Clinton. He is a visiting fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.