Mobile Future

White House Science And Technology Advisors Agree: The Spectrum Buck Stops At The President

As far as the nation’s technology policy world goes, it’s been a pretty good month for American consumers, businesses and public servants who depend on wireless spectrum to fuel the mobile devices and services we all use.

The FCC Chairman got the ball rolling at the mobile industry’s trade show in New Orleans by praising America’s wireless operators for announcing their willingness to explore – and test – practical ways to share the vast amounts of underutilized government spectrum with the various federal agencies who hold it.

A few days later, and closer to our nation’s capital – ground-zero for all things spectrum — several national technology associations – Mobile Future included — sent letters to the President and his team spelling-out concrete ideas for jump-starting White House-led efforts to free-up more government spectrum.

This was followed last week by the release by the White House of a thoughtful twelve-month strategic plan to deliver more effective and citizen-friendly mobile services and digital innovation — all of which depend on sustainable access to spectrum.

And to cap things off, on Friday, joining the growing chorus of voices urging the White House to take a more assertive role in making more government spectrum available for commercial uses was the President’s own hand-picked technology and science advisors – a distinguished panel of our country’s innovation leaders, academicians and investors.

In a point-for-point preview of an upcoming report it will be sending to President Obama on what he must do to get much more government spectrum freed-up for use by our citizens, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) laid-out a set of steps the White House can take immediately — and independently – to make sure that our nation’s spectrum pipeline doesn’t run dry.

On the cusp of summer, and as we enter the thick of the Presidential campaign, the surround-sound concerning spectrum is now clear, unequivocal, and resounding:  if we are to avoid a national and potentially dangerous shortage of spectrum –a shortage which the FCC says could happen as early as next year — our leaders in Washington need now to reassess the way they manage and allocate spectrum.   Our government’s way-too-cumbersome, achingly slow approach to spectrum management – literally unchanged for decades – needs more than merely a tweak and a fresh coat of paint.  Quickly and effectively addressing U.S. spectrum deficiencies demands a wide-ranging approach to spectrum management that not only includes conducting voluntary incentive auctions and reallocating underutilized government spectrum, but also encourages secondary market transactions and spectrum efficiency. As PCAST members rightly pointed out, a range of innovative tools from advancing new technologies, implementing new approaches to sharing spectrum that can’t be reallocated, creating new incentives for government agencies to make more spectrum available for consumer use, adopting new database registries and user prioritization modules, establishing industry advisory structures, and a host of other measures are needed, and worthy of exploration.

At the same time, the government must not lose sight of satisfying the goal of reallocating 500 MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband from both government and commercial spectrum holdings. Given the national urgency of our mounting spectrum needs, the Presidential panel also is right that there is a profound need for speed.

The government agencies responsible for managing spectrum – especially the NTIA and FCC – and those federal departments which hold much underutilized swaths of it — need to apply much more “giddy-up” to their “whoah” as they move forward.

At a time in our nation’s 21st century innovation lifecycle when it takes less than five or so years for private companies like SpaceX to go from blueprint to design and launch of sophisticated rockets, and for our nation’s wireless carriers to build-out the massive national networks needed to launch fourth-generation high speed broadband services, and a matter of only months for companies like Square to conceive, finance, and deploy an entirely new way we pay for things, or mere weeks for mobile innovators to deliver products and applications which reach tens  of millions of users, the government process is painfully slow to reallocate much needed spectrum for the vitally important new mobile uses by American citizens,  researchers, businesses, teachers, doctors, and innovators. With existing spectrum already at 85% capacity and estimates showing It takes seven to ten years to repurpose spectrum, there is not a moment to waste.

The bottom-line, as was expressed on Friday by PCAST members, and echoed earlier and earnestly by a range of our nation’s technology innovators, associations, and advocates, is that when it comes to spectrum, our government needs to learn better and faster ways to roll.

Above all, for our mounting national spectrum challenge to be met and mastered, government agencies need to know it is the White House itself that is on point and leading the charge.

In this, PCAST members agreed with what we at Mobile Future have argued for some time, that at the end of the day, when it comes to spectrum, as with all issues of national economic consequence,   one address above all in Washington DC counts most:  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Regarding spectrum, the nation yearns – but still waits — for those who serve there to more actively lead from the West Wing to get government moving in the same direction, and finally unleash the spectrum the nation needs to connect all Americans to our new era of mobile innovation.

The PCAST report continues the process of looking at all options necessary to make more spectrum available.  In instances where the best method to enhance the wireless experience of all Americans – the clearing and reallocation of federal government spectrum– is impractical, options designed to share that spectrum should be explored.   I trust when the final report reaches the President’s desk – or the Resolute desk as it is sometimes called – President Obama will be reminded that more resolution is needed than ever to achieve his historic broadband goals,  but as with so much else — the spectrum buck also stops right there.   The hard but urgent work of getting our nation’s spectrum policy right can’t be shouldered only by government agencies and Departments.  It needs to be done in the Oval Office.