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October 25, 2010

Advising the FCC on Invisible Infrastructure

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski uses the apt term "invisible infrastructure" to describe the radio spectrum over which all wireless communication occurs. "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 in a recent talk at the FCC Spectrum Summit.

At the summit Genachowski also announced that he has set up a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) "comprised of some of the leading technology and business leaders in our country" to provide "counsel on using spectrum and other communications technologies to drive job creation and economic growth." I'm one of the members of the TAC. [This is volunteer work; your tax dollars are safe.] Although government committees can be waste of time and an excuse for inaction, I'm hopeful about this one because the Chair and the FCC clearly understand both how urgent the need is to make more spectrum available for mobile communication AND the size of the opportunity this can be for the US.

Think cell phones and smart phones in general; think Wifi and Bluetooth; think Kindle, iPhone, iPad, and Android; think of the application markets which have already opened up for these technologies and devices; the services new and old which can be delivered over them. All of this opportunity requires radio spectrum.

The spectrum is a national resource; it belongs to all of us; it is managed by the FCC within parameters set by Congress. If we keep managing it in the traditional way, which evolved when technology was very different, we will run out of spectrum and exhaust radio-based opportunities; our devices will slow down because of spectrum congestion even though we want to use them more. Genachowski says "we are likely to see a 35X increase in mobile broadband traffic over the next 5 years."

He continues:

"It's clear: We are standing at a crossroads. We are looking at two potential futures.

"If we act thoughtfully and execute on a strategic vision to ensure the highest and best use of this precious national resource, we can drive billions of dollars in private investment, fueling world-leading innovations, creating millions of new jobs, and enabling endless new products and services that can help improve the lives of all Americans.

"If we don't, we will put our country's economic competitiveness at risk, and squander the chance we now have to lead the world in mobile."

Under Genachowski, the FCC recently made a decision which will allow "TV white spaces", spectrum which used to be reserved for over-the-air TV, to be used instead for UNLICENSED services like WiFi and Bluetooth and whatever else inventive minds can invent. Just the success of those two technologies, in the small slivers of "undesirable" spectrum so far available to them, demonstrates how much more information can be transmitted over shared spectrum than over spectrum licensed to a particular owner AND how much innovation results when spectrum is made available for innovation rather than earmarked for a specific purpose.

In some sense spectrum is finite like, for example, the width of a fiber used to carry signal. However, evolving technology makes it possible to squeeze more and more information through the same strand of fiber and over the same range of radio spectrum. But the use of radio spectrum is regulated unlike the technologies used in fiber optics. Although some regulation is needed to prevent interference and allocate the right to use this public asset, the "wrong" regulation and the "wrong" allocations will result in spectrum shortages. The "right" regulation and allocation – what the FCC is doing with white spaces – will make spectrum relatively cheap and plentiful.

I'm glad to have the opportunity to help devise a plan for our crucial invisible infrastructure.

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