A Deeper Look into Wireless Spectrum Capacity and Its Effect on Device Performance and Consumers: A Response to CNNMoney Tech’s Spectrum Series

by Latoya Livingston on March 6, 2012

PART II: Experts Weigh in at MMTC’s Open Forum on Spectrum

What would you say if I told you that the concept for mobile communications was first patented by a black man 125 years ago?  You would probably be utterly surprised, like I was today at MMTC’s Spectrum Forum, where Jonathan Spalter introduced me to Granville Woods and his 1887 invention, the multiplex telegraph.  In 1887, Granville Woods saw the future, a future that that would allow moving trains to communicate with each other…a future that has arrived.  As Spalter so aptly put it, “Woods’ vision for mobile communication is now ubiquitous”; his future is our present.

In his daily life, Spalter is the chairman of Mobile Future, a coalition of nonprofit organizations and individuals interested in and dedicated to advocating for an environment in which innovations in wireless technology and services are enabled and encouraged.  But today, he was so much more.  At MMTC’s forum, Spalter joined a panel of telecom experts that educated its eager listeners on the subtle nuances of spectrum.

The panel was moderated by Ari Fitzgerald, a partner at Hogan Lovells and secretary of the MMTC Board.  In addition to Spalter, the speakers consisted of Blair Levin, architect of the National Broadband Plan and one of the most distinguished attorneys working in the field; Amy Levine, senior legal advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski; Angela Giancarlo, senior legal advisor to FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell; and Louis Peraetz, wireline, international, and public safety legal advisor to FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

I left the forum today a little smarter about spectrum issues than when I had arrived, and more intrigued about how what I had learned would translate to the lives of Americans.   I thought back to the CNNTech article that David Goldman wrote and related it to the information that I garnered.  This led to both in-depth insight and more esoteric questions.

Spalter gave a very fitting anecdote in his presentation: He told the audience of a conversation that he had had with a communications engineer when he tried to grasp the severity of the spectrum crunch.  The engineer told him that a typical cell tower in a metropolitan area has a three-block radius and that it only takes 30 simultaneous users streaming YouTube to blow out the sector.  That is not only mind blowing, but it is very real.  What is even more real is the unavoidable fact that it will be communities of color who will suffer first and suffer the most (due to the wealth gap) when spectrum is exhausted.  So, how (and can) we fix this?

Although the DTV transition was supposed to do a lot to fix the spectrum issue (and has done well), we are still left with the undeniable truth that TV broadcasters will need to give up more spectrum, especially the “beachfront” spectrum that they have in their midst.  Proponents point to the fact that few people receive over-the-air (OTA) TV these days, so the need isn’t really there for them to have the spectrum.  The problem with that reasoning is that when we look at who is currently using the OTA signals, these users are disproportionately minorities, the elderly on fixed incomes, and low-income households.

Someone will have to take the short end of the stick.  The patchwork nature of wireless spectrum will impede  innovation, so acquiring broadcast (and government) spectrum is essential.  However, the question remains: will broadcasters and the government give it up?  As far as government-owned spectrum is concerned, the answer seems to be a resounding no.

As Spalter stated, “It won’t only be the private sector that will have to bear the burden to get us over the spectrum hurdle.”  When asked about federal spectrum, Spalter admitted that there is cause for concern that the federal government is pushing back so much on giving up spectrum.  However, he did state that he was hopeful that with the clear economic forecast regarding spectrum deficiencies, the White House will not only prompt the federal government to use their spectrum more efficiently, but also give up some of its own spectrum.  Regardless, one thing remains.  We will need more leadership from the White House to make it happen.

Although government allocation of spectrum wasn’t included in the recently passed spectrum legislation (HR 3630), Amy Levine did not see the language of the statute as prohibiting the Commission from considering spectrum bands (other than those specifically mentioned) as being off of the proverbial table.  Levine made sure to point out that a partnership between federal offices (looking at federal spectrum) and the FCC (looking at commercial spectrum) is possible.

But who will (strongly) encourage the government to give up such a coveted commodity?  An overwhelming consensus at the forum made it very clear that it would have to be the people.  Most exactly, the White House would have to step up and instruct the government agencies to work with the FCC to make the decision to evaluate their spectrum, how efficiently it’s used, and then make some of it available for other uses.

On the commercial side, since it’s illegal to hoard spectrum without the intention of using it, why not put obligations on the spectrum holders that require them to use the spectrum by a particular date?  Most of the major service providers have a bank of spectrum that they aren’t using as quickly as we would hope.  Many are concentrating on making their spectrum usage more efficient by updating cell towers and equipment.  Though we should encourage these actions, we as consumers must still be wary and make sure that we discourage (and also prevent against) those that might be hoarding spectrum for a big payday.

What else can be done?  Are there other means to solving this spectrum crunch?  Many industry insiders say yes.  Is consolidation the key?  What about broadcast/wireless deals like SpectrumCo?  Is this the future or the answer to the spectrum crunch?  I’ll discuss all of these topics in the next installment of this spectrum series.

  • Latoya Livingston

    Latoya Livingston is a Washington, D.C.-based attorney with years of experience working in the public and private sector. Attorney Livingston joins MMTC after performing pro bono work for the organization last year.

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  • Guest729

    Great Article! I also felt a little smarter about spectrum issues when I left the forum. So many people will be affected when the crisis really starts to take over, and something needs to be done about it soon.

  • JCraigDC

    Great article.  Touches on a lot of the debate on the best uses for spectrum and how more can be freed up for different consumer uses.  As your article states, minorities still rely on broadcast, but this use is no better than wireless and vice-versa.  Consumers, especially those who find cable and satellite to be cost prohibitive, must continue to have access to broadcast.  At the same time, consumer want to do more with their cell phones and those without broadband at home depend on those phones for Internet service.  I’ll stay tuned to see how the policy debate plays out.

  • Anonymous

    I reallly enjoyed the Spectrum Forum- and I too was intrigued by the selection of Granville T Woods and the tie-in to modern day mobile communication – I remember studying him in my Black History class many years ago.  Thanks to the speakers and to MMTC for breaking down this important informations about spectrum into consumer-friendly bytes.

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