WASHINGTON — When it comes to spectrum, the electromagnetic infrastructure that makes wireless devices work, there is a widely held belief that it commands such a high value because it is in such short supply.
But this afternoon at the New America Foundation think tank, a panel of experts took aim at the notion of spectrum scarcity.
“The reality, though, is that the only thing that’s scarce is government permission to access the airwaves,” said Michael Calabrese, director of New America’s wireless future program. “The majority of beachfront spectrum is not used in most places at most times, even in downtown Washington.”
Spectrum, on its surface an esoteric and highly technical subject, is a central element of the broadband policy debate. All wireless technologies, ranging from Wi-Fi to the 4G networks companies like Verizon Wireless and AT&T are spending billions to construct, are powered by spectrum.
Many policymakers see wireless networks as one of the most promising solutions to bring broadband services to rural America, where long distances and rugged terrain have impeded investment from wireline providers.
Spectrum policy also grows increasingly important with the explosion of smartphones and mobile computing, a platform that many expect to surpass the PC as the primary vehicle to accessing the Internet.
“We as a country have a big problem,” said Kevin Werbach, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “The problem is that we need more wireless capacity. Wireless is the oil of the 21st century,” added Werbach, who co-chaired the division of President Obama’s transition team on the Federal Communications Commission.
New America today released a quartet of research papers fleshing out a migration toward a networked spectrum policy, where intelligent devices would be able to dynamically navigate from one band to another, rather than the current model, where each device is hardwired to operate on a dedicated swath of the airwaves.
“There’s really no reason for these fixed frequency assignments that are tied to hardware,” Calabrese said.
Advocating for spectrum policy reform is a familiar role for the New America Foundation, which was an active participant in the push to open up the unused broadcast spectrum known as TV white spaces, a fight the group won in November with an FCC ruling.
Broadcasters fought the white spaces crowd tooth and nail, warning that allowing devices to operate on the unused spectrum would interfere with TV transmissions.
To address the interference concerns, the FCC in its ruling ordered the creation of a nationwide database of occupied spectrum frequencies. Any device running on white space spectrum will be required to have a GPS capability and tap into the database to ensure that it accesses a frequency that is not in use by a local TV broadcast.
The panelists at today’s event look at that database as a model for the broader federal spectrum policy, one of the many issues the FCC is currently reviewing as it prepares a national broadband strategy due to be presented to Congress next February.
They called their model dynamic spectrum access, a networked system of assigning spectrum that draws inspiration from the Domain Name System (DNS) that translates domain names into IP address on the Internet.
“What we need is a DNS for spectrum,” Werbach said. “Like the DNS, the white spaces database could evolve into a real-time spectrum addressing service.”
The panelists said that a dynamic spectrum policy would solve the scarcity problem by ending the current licensing model, which critics say allows vast portions of the airwaves to go to waste, particularly in the bands allocated to government agencies.
“It’s an open secret — everyone knows that government spectrum is vastly underutilized,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of New America’s open technology initiative.
But just how underutilized government spectrum is remains unclear. The FCC and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Information Administration are the two agencies that oversee spectrum, but they have been widely criticized for inadequate data about how it is allocated.
To address that shortcoming, Sens. John Kerry and Olympia Snowe introduced a bill that would require the FCC and NTIA to conduct an inventory of the current thicket of licenses with an eye toward putting spectrum to more efficient use.
That would be the first step toward a fluid model where intelligent mobile devices automatically detect the strongest available band of spectrum, and can move back and forth to avoid interference with broadcasts and other traffic on the airwaves.
“Those that have access to spectrum now see anything that’s dynamic as a threat to them,” said Preston Marshal, director of the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California.
He argued that it’s not a zero-sum game, however. A dynamic spectrum model could help current license holders like wireless carriers solve interference issues on their networks. Devices that could flit from one band to another could be a boon to military operations when opposing forces jam certain frequencies to block communications.