The Federal Communications Commission this week moved closer to advancing its goal of reallocating large swaths of wireless spectrum to power new, next-generation mobile broadband networks.
In a speech reiterating warnings of a looming spectrum shortfall, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski referred to spectrum as the nation's "invisible infrastructure," an essential ingredient to support economic growth in an environment where businesses increasingly rely on mobile devices.
"The explosive growth in mobile communications is outpacing our ability to keep up," Genachowski said. "If we don't act to update our spectrum policies for the 21st century, we're going to run into a wall -- a spectrum crunch -- that will stifle American innovation and economic growth and cost us the opportunity to lead the world in mobile communications."
At a spectrum summit on Thursday, the FCC released a white paper that aimed to chart the supply and demand of the airwaves in the coming years as smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices proliferate and handle increasingly data-intensive applications.
Parsing various industry estimates, the commission projects a 35-fold increase in mobile broadband traffic over the next five years, for instance.
"Today, there are 61 million Americans with smartphones. I think we see where that number is headed," Genachowski said. "Then we get to iPads and the coming wave of tablets. Who doesn't think they will follow the same trajectory?"
The white paper also estimated that the FCC's goal of freeing up 300 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband in the next five years would create a market value of $120 billion for the spectrum alone, with a several-fold multiplier effect across the economy once that spectrum is deployed.
"Though you can't see it, spectrum is the oxygen of our mobile communications infrastructure and the backbone of a growing percentage of our economy," Genachowski said.
The FCC also announced the formation of the Technological Advisory Council, a panel comprised of technical experts that will advise the commission on various proceedings, including spectrum policy and many other recommendations of the national broadband plan the FCC released earlier this year.
The broadband plan set the goal of freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum over the next 10 years, with the five-year milestone of 300 MHz. That proposal has since won the endorsement of the White House, but those airwaves will have to come from somewhere.
The FCC and the National Telecommunications Information Administration, the division of the Commerce Department that oversees federal spectrum, have been assessing the marketplace to devise a plan for reallocating public and private sections of the airwaves to serve mobile broadband buildouts.
One sector that has found itself in the FCC's crosshairs is the broadcasting industry, whose primary trade group, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), has fought against any proposal that could pressure its members into relinquishing their spectrum allocations.
"NAB looks forward to working with policymakers to ensure that efficient spectrum deployment matches actual spectrum demand, and that America's leadership in providing the finest free and local broadcasting system in the world is not compromised," NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton said in a statement responding to the FCC's activity this week.
Other groups that stand to be the principal beneficiaries of spectrum reallocations were somewhat more enthusiastic in their reaction.
CTIA, the principal trade association representing the wireless industry, and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), whose members include many mobile-device manufacturers, both applauded the FCC's moves.
"The commission has certainly done its homework by evaluating the data demand, network density, spectral efficiency and baseline spectrum use," CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro said in response to the FCC's technical paper. "They have proven what CEA has long believed, the spectrum crisis is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Additional spectrum is key to our national competitiveness and the future of technology innovation."