Congress is Answering the Urgent Call for Spectrum Reform, and Members Should Combine Efforts

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As Public Knowledge has often noted, unlicensed spectrum is a key component of the mobile broadband ecosystem. Unlicensed spectrum enables our increasingly Wi-Fi dependent world, and is a “public commons” of sorts for innovators because these frequencies are open for any person and any device to use, for any (legal) purpose. Unlicensed spectrum bands are the innovation bands.

That’s why it’s notable that last week, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced the Promoting Unlicensed Spectrum Act. If enacted, the bill would ensure that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers the need for unlicensed spectrum when determining future spectrum allocation and assignments, establishes a national strategy intended to ensure the unlicensed spectrum needs of America’s consumers and innovators are met, and creates a system of evaluation for how unlicensed users could share spectrum bands currently occupied by federal agencies.

Senator Schatz’s legislation is the latest of a flurry of bills seeking to figure out new ways to free up more spectrum for commercial uses, unlicensed use, and the combination of the two. Last month, Public Knowledge testified before the House Commerce Committee’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee on draft legislation directing the FCC to plan how it would auction various federal spectrum bands identified by Congress. And the recent bipartisan budget legislation included provisions for the FCC to identify federal frequencies for both licensed and unlicensed uses. Most recently, the Senate Commerce Committee announced it will consider the Chairman John Thune’s (R-SD) MOBILE NOW Act, which aims to create a pipeline of spectrum to be freed up for commercial use, create incentives for federal agencies to share or relinquish spectrum, and accelerate deployment of mobile broadband networks.

Senator Schatz’s Promoting Unlicensed Spectrum Act is forward thinking and crucially recognizes that unlicensed spectrum has become a critical driver of innovation and economic growth in the United States. Further, the bill would give the Commission important tools to increase the amount of unlicensed spectrum to meet the needs of both consumers and innovators, and would also accommodate the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT).

Critically, Senator Schatz’s efforts to allocate additional spectrum for unlicensed use and find opportunities for unlicensed users to share with federal agencies do not inhibit commercial spectrum allocations or harm investment in mobile networks. Instead, the legislation would complement efforts to free up new spectrum for licensed services, providing the FCC with the discretion to ensure the public’s spectrum resources can meet America’s economic needs, spur innovation, provide Americans with essential connectivity, and serve the public interest.

Recent studies have shown that unlicensed spectrum contributes over $220 billion annually to the U.S. economy. And unlicensed spectrum already plays a key role in our mobile broadband networks – Cisco estimates by in 2016 a majority of mobile traffic will be offloaded onto Wi-Fi. Without the ability to offload traffic onto unlicensed frequencies, U.S. mobile networks would be overly congested and consumers would pay considerably more for wireless connectivity.

The United States also needs significantly more unlicensed spectrum to accommodate the demands of the Internet of Things. IoT traffic already predominantly rides on unlicensed frequencies. And by 2020, Cisco estimates 50 billion IoT devices will be wirelessly connected, creating over $19 trillion in economic activity, which McKinsey reports could grow to $33 trillion by 2025.

Unless policymakers get spectrum policy correct – including finding a substantial amount of airwaves for dedicated unlicensed use and sharing with unlicensed devices – this bright wireless future is at risk.

This is why Public Knowledge has proposed that policymakers take aggressive steps to ensure there is sufficient unlicensed spectrum for future needs – including adopting legislation that requires an equivalent amount of unlicensed spectrum whenever new bands are freed up for licensed, commercial use. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel refers to this concept as the “Wi-Fi dividend.” Further, Public Knowledge has urged Congress to adopt legislation directing the FCC to allow unlicensed users to operate on a non-interfering basis in bands used by federal agencies (with exceptions for national security and public safety uses).

Additionally, policymakers should also consider establishing a process for the FCC to periodically review its rules governing unlicensed spectrum access. Such a review could determine whether and how the Commission’s rules can better promote the deployment of new services and technologies on unlicensed frequencies, lower the cost of manufacturing and deployment of new services and technologies, and increase deployment of advanced telecommunications services to all Americans. Finally, the review could also regularly evaluate and identify federal bands ripe for sharing with unlicensed devices.

The flood of activity to secure America’s mobile future is welcome and timely. And lawmakers must ensure that as they address the spectrum needs of commercial wireless services, they also allocate sufficient airwaves for unlicensed use. Thus, we hope to see Senator Schatz’s Promoting Unlicensed Spectrum Act added to Senator Thune’s MOBILE NOW Act when the Senate Commerce Committee meets this week. A comprehensive bill that makes more spectrum available to non-federal users is a rare opportunity for all interested parties to win – additional airwaves for wireless carriers and unlicensed users, consumers, and innovators, and revenue for the federal government.

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