The End of Spectrum ‘Scarcity’

policy paper | June 24, 2009

Wireless is the most cost-effective and rapid means to bring broadband access to under-served rural and urban residents. Even after high-capacity Internet access becomes universal, wireless remains as the complementary infrastructure needed to achieve the larger goal of pervasive connectivity. Within a few short years, most Americans are likely to spend more hours each week on mobile than on wired Internet connections. Demand for spectrum will outpace availability under current spectrum man-management policies. Meanwhile, in every community across the country, large swaths of valuable spectrum lie fallow the majority of the time. This underutilized spectrum represents enormous, untapped, public capacity for high-speed and pervasive broadband connectivity. Therefore it is vital to a national broadband plan to consider policies that will encourage more intensive and efficient use of the nation’s spectrum resources.

This paper recommends that the Obama administration and the FCC make mapping and actively facilitating opportunistic access to unused and underutilized frequency bands a priority as part of any national broadband policy. Unlocking the “vast wasteland” of unused spectrum capacity can be achieved through three overlapping steps:

First, under a White House-led initiative, the NTIA and FCC should conduct an Inventory of the Airwaves that maps how our public spectrum resource is being utilized or underutilized in various bands, by both commercial and government users. Actual spectrum measurement data should be included. The Commission could draw upon funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to map this vital component of the nation’s basic broadband capabilities.

Second, while spectrum mapping will greatly facilitate the identification of bands that can be reallocated for more intensive and efficient use, the process of unlocking unused spectrum capacity should begin immediately on a band-by-band basis. The most promising mechanism is to build on the TV Bands Database that will be certified by the FCC as a means of authorizing unlicensed access to va-cant TV channels (‘white space’) on a market-by-market basis. There is no reason to limit the functionality of the TV Bands Database to the TV band frequencies. If a potentially useful frequency band is not being used at particular locations (e.g., in New York City but not in West Virginia), or is being used only at certain times, or at certain altitudes or angles of reception, then that currently wasted spectrum capacity could at a minimum be listed in the Database for opportunistic access, subject to whatever power limits or other conditions would be necessary to avoid harmful interference with sensitive incumbent operations.

Third, NTIA and FCC should commence a set of inquiries into the technologies, incentives, institutional arrangements and “rules of the road” that can best facilitate a future of more open, intensive and opportunistic sharing of the nation’s spectrum resource. For example, incentives to encourage the sharing of unused capacity by both federal agencies and private sector licensees (such as device certification fees and/or real-time auctions to avoid congestion) should be explicitly studied and debated. In the near term, we believe that Congress and/or the administration need to adopt a policy that federal agency communication systems will be designed to actively facilitate spectrum sharing with the private sector, moving beyond today’s passive sharing limited mainly to radar bands. In addition, ultimate authority for federal spectrum policy coordination should be brought back into the White House, so that the nation’s overall interests can be better considered and coordinated.

To read the full paper, download the PDF below.