FCC Chair Addresses Looming Spectrum Crisis

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FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke to the wireless industry at the International CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment conference this week in San Diego. During his presentation he described an impending ‘spectrum crisis' and outlined a number of initiatives the FCC is working on to ensure that the spectrum can keep pace with the exploding demand for mobile broadband.

Genachowski noted that wireless demand has increased thirty-fold in the same timeframe that the FCC has allocated only three times the spectrum bandwidth. Doing the simple math it seems like it is fair to suggest we may soon face a spectrum crunch if something doesn't change in one or both of those trends.

One of the proposals he detailed is to offload some of the bandwidth demand to wireless networks when they're available. Genachowski claims that redistributing demand over wireless networks could cut wireless spectrum usage by consumers as much as 40%. That initiative would require some additional technologies or enhanced mobile devices capable of dynamically switching between cellular and wifi based on availability.

Genachowski also stated that the FCC is going to be more aggressive about reallocating unused or obsolete spectrum ranges like the recent switch of the 700MHz television spectrum for use by mobile providers. The need to squeeze out every last megabit of potential bandwidth will be even more critical as the mobile carriers fully implement 4G networks.

That brings us to the next proposal from Genachowski which is to explore more strategic placement of tower sites for 4G networks and to streamline the process of getting tower sites approved. He suggested a sort of ‘shot clock' approach implementing a maximum timeframe for making a decision in order to prevent bottlenecks and keep the process flowing.

Advances in mobile device technology and the increasing number of mobile broadband users both put a growing strain on the available bandwidth. Mobile spectrum used to be dedicated strictly to voice calls, but now transmits streaming audio and video, high-resolution photographs, and exponentially more data than it did 5 or 10 years ago.

Creative ideas like those outlined by Genachowski or Google's proposal to use the white space of the TV frequency spectrum are steps in the right direction. There is only so much bandwidth, so the FCC and the wireless industry face a daunting task to allocate it as effectively as possible and develop new technologies that maximize the data that can be delivered over the bandwidth that is available.

During his presentation Genachowski also took the opportunity to address recent FCC actions related to the wireless industry. He discussed the FCC inquiry into the practice of mobile device exclusivity such as AT&T being the only provider of the Apple iPhone. He was careful to establish that the FCC is not interested in unilaterally implementing draconian policies though. Genachowski said "When we say that we haven't determined what we are going to do with handset exclusivity and we want your input, we mean it."

He also addressed the net neutrality debate, stressing his dedication to ensuring that the Internet (and mobile broadband) remain "a vibrant platform for innovation and investment, creativity and speech, an enduring engine for job creation and economic growth."

The FCC, and Julius Genachowski in particular, hasn't been making many friends in the Internet or wireless industries. I think Genachowski is to be commended for walking in to the lion's den and extending a hand to work together. The FCC has a difficult mandate and all parties will be better served if the wireless and Internet industries are involved in developing collaborative solutions that work for everyone.

Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at tonybradley.com.

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