Spectrum crunch, public safety could move policy on mobile broadband

During a Tuesday panel discussion hosted by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) at the Newseum, industry leaders and government officials discussed the future of mobile broadband and related public policies that will enable America to be a the forefront of that sector’s development.

Consensus was built around the need for more wireless spectrum, with broad support for the Obama administration’s plan to release 500MHz of federal and commercial spectrum over a 10-year period. Less enthusiastic, however, were calls for continued net neutrality policies into the mobile space.

In an adjoining report, ITIF research analysts acknowledged a history of positive government involvement with mobile technologies, citing instances in the 1980s, 90s where FCC auctioned spectrum for increased innovation and greater public benefit. According to the report, “Opportunities and Innovations in the Mobile Broadband Economy,” the 1990s saw cell phone subscribers triple, per-minute prices decrease by half and cumulative industrywide investment in broadband reached nearly $70 billion between 1995 and 1999.

Most recently, the DTV transition made room for 4G networks, which will allow for the kind of rich applications currently enjoyed by wired broadband to be enjoyed on handheld devises. For many attendees at Tuesday’s forum, this trajectory amounts to more innovation and increased economic productivity.

“The value to consumers is on the order of 10 to 20 times what the spectrum is worth,” Coleman Bazelon, Principal at the Brattle Group said. The Obama administration has said it will look to release 500MHz of spectrum, which would likely near $100 billion in sales.

“So that’s a trillion to two trillion [dollars] worth of value,” Mr. Bazelon said.

Echoing these sentiments was Phil Weiser, Senior Advisor to the National Economic Council Director for Technology and Innovation. Mr. Weiser said the president’s spectrum initiative is “public action catalyzing private investment,” similar to the transnational railroad or land grant universities.

“Getting spectrum out there enables competition,” he said.

But this spectrum release will take time, and estimates project that more data will be streaming through handheld devices on a monthly basis in 2014 than during all of 2008. The resulting “spectrum crunch” will diminish possible economic gains, industry officials at AT&T and Qualcomm cautioned, so the question then became how to squeeze the most out of current assets and what policies should be in place moving forward.

Dean Brenner, Vice President of Governmental Affairs at Qualcomm said that there’s no question demand is exploding, so carriers and developers are moving forward with investments to their networks. He believes a significant amount of capacity gain will come from enhanced network technology and a modernized spectrum that frees inefficient government uses of spectrum.

For its part, Mr. Weiser said that building out a next-generation network for first responders and public safety officials could set the framework for other industries moving into the 4G space.

“There’s an opportunity…for significant public policy change,” Weiser said. “It’s not only about what spectrum needs to be released for public safety or what technology, but also a governance structure [can be developed] to make this work.”

Net Neutrality Component

Industry sentiment towards net neutrality is fairly established, with a growing chorus of network providers, phone carriers and technology companies advocating for a deregulated approach. They argue that some users abuse unlimited network capacities, causing stress on the system. A landmark case against Comcast in 2008 found that the FCC had overstepped its bounds when it punished the provider for intentionally slowing down heavy users. The FCC is currently advocating for a reclassification of broadband as a communication technology, not an information service.

The debate has been polarizing with Democrats and Republicans largely falling on opposite sides of how to treat the Internet. And with most attendees at the ITIF panel seeking to avoid the issue, net neutrality’s expansion into mobile broadband may be even more contentious.