The Internet of Things and the Importance of Unlicensed Spectrum

August 5, 2015 , , , ,

On July 29, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on “Wireless Broadband and the Future of Spectrum Policy,” where Ranking Member Bill Nelson observed, “[t]oday, there are more wireless devices in this country than there are people.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Hill, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee was holding a hearing at the exact same time on the Internet of Things, discussing the impact of electronic devices on public policy. Both hearings made it clear that the need for more unlicensed spectrum is immediate, because billions of devices depend on it.

Unlicensed spectrum allows the public to freely access services without a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As a result, anyone is free to access these unlicensed bands to operate devices. This open scheme allows devices to connect through technologies like Wi-Fi, keeping prices low for consumers and giving innovators the spectrum they need to develop new products.

The Internet of Things is a massive network of “things” that communicate with each other and predominantly utilize unlicensed spectrum. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that there are around 25 billion devices, including watches, light switches, speakers, medical devices, and sensors for climate control, which are already connected within the Internet of Things. And as the network grows, so will the need for unlicensed spectrum, because more devices will need the service to freely communicate with each other.

The House Committee’s hearing focused on the benefits of unlicensed spectrum for the future, but the Senate Committee’s support for unlicensed spectrum was diluted. Chairman Darrell Issa of the House Judiciary Committee called the Internet of Things the “future of our lives” and emphasized that Congress needs to work together to find more unlicensed spectrum. He pointed out that the spectrum we rely on in our daily lives occupies just a tiny sliver of available spectrum and demand for that small piece of spectrum is growing. Overall, Chairman Issa prioritized unlicensed spectrum in discussion by acknowledging that it does not make much sense to discuss the Internet of Things without recognizing its dependence on unlicensed spectrum.

The Senate hearing participants discussed unlicensed spectrum, but the discussion of how to profit from and relicense spectrum dominated the conversation. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was one of the witnesses at the hearing and championed changes in unlicensed policies in her testimony, saying that we need “[n]ot just more licensed spectrum – but also more unlicensed spectrum. In short, we need more Wi-Fi.”

Chairman Rosenworcel was particularly on-point for unlicensed spectrum. She pointed out that historically, legislative processes have overlooked the value of unlicensed spectrum – a history that repeated itself that day. Relicensing spectrum from agencies, creating incentives for spectrum holders to relinquish their spectrum, and identifying additional bands all dominated the Senate Committee’s policy discussion at the hearing. Unlicensed spectrum took the back seat.

The two committees had disconnected visions of the role of unlicensed spectrum in the future, but there is no reason for that disconnect to continue.

More unlicensed spectrum must be opened up to support the devices that demand it. The Internet of Things is growing and consumers expect connectivity at a low price. In these conversations about the “future of spectrum,” it is in everyone’s interest for Congress to come together and prioritize unlicensed spectrum, so that innovation and the growth of modern technologies can continue.

Image credit: Flickr user davepatten