At the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, vendors from across the tech industry showcased sleek new mobile devices, promising that the latest smartphones and tablets would deliver ever-more-robust mobile computing capabilities.
It was an appropriate setting for the nation's chief telecommunications regulator to issue a sober warning that without an abrupt policy shift, those devices may never deliver the rich Web experience that makes them so appealing.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski was talking about spectrum, the invisible airwaves that power the wireless networks that are coming under increasing strain from the surge in mobile computing.
"We're in the early stages of a mobile revolution that is sparking an explosion in wireless traffic," Genachowski said in prepared remarks. "Without action, demand for spectrum will soon outstrip supply."
Specifically, Genachowski was promoting an FCC proposal to conduct incentive auctions, a mechanism for enticing TV broadcasters to relinquish their spectrum licenses to be resold to wireless providers in exchange for a portion of the auction proceeds.
"It's time to take the necessary steps to ensure that spectrum will be the great enabler of mobile innovation in the 21st century, not a chokepoint," he said. "I believe incentive auctions are a test of whether the U.S. can make the right strategic choices in a complex and fast-moving digital economy."
The proposal for incentive auctions was a key plank of the national broadband plan the FCC released last March, but it faces a challenge from the National Association of Broadcasters, an industry lobby that has warned against any effort to pressure its members to give up their spectrum allocations. The group has said repeatedly that it would not oppose incentive auctions that are "truly voluntary," but that it would oppose efforts to impose financial fees or other burdens on broadcasters that refuse to turn over their licenses.
Genachowski has tried to mollify reluctant broadcasters with the assurance that spectrum sharing and other technologies would allow them to stay on the air, even if they gave up their licenses for auction.
The chairman made his pitch at a sympathetic forum. The Consumer Electronics Association, the host of CES, was one of four groups that signed onto a letter delivered earlier this week to Senate members calling for the swift introduction and passage of legislation that would authorize the FCC to conduct the incentive auctions. The FCC has acknowledged that it needs a congressional mandate to go ahead with the plan.
The FCC aims to reallocate 500 MHz of spectrum to wireless broadband networks over the next 10 years, of which 120 MHz would come from broadcasters. The White House has endorsed the agency's spectrum plan.
The FCC took a series of procedural steps in November to develop a regulatory framework for the spectrum shift, but it is unable to convene the auctions, which typically take months if not years to complete, without congressional action.
"If we don't tackle the spectrum challenge, network congestion will grow, and consumer frustration will grow with it," Genachowski said. "We'll put our country's economic competitiveness at risk, and squander the opportunity to lead the world in mobile."