It may not grab the headlines like a corruption probe or a good old-fashioned sex scandal, but Washington’s stewardship of the wireless spectrum affects your everyday life in a profound way.
The wireless spectrum is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, through which forms of energy like light and radio waves travel. The wireless segment of this invisible array serves as a pipeline for the communication signals used by devices such as cellphones and laptops.
The United States and other countries view the wireless spectrum as a public resource that must be tightly regulated. So whenever the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues a ruling on the private sector’s use of the spectrum, wireless users like you feel the effects.
More traffic on the mobile data highway
In recent months, some wireless providers have taken steps to increase their shares of the spectrum through purchases, mergers and other means. Economists would call it a simple case of supply and demand. What makes it complicated is the fact that companies have a limited supply of wireless capacity to serve a customer base whose demand seems unlimited.
A recent article in Forbes magazine described the situation this way:
“Mobile data traffic is more than doubling every year, driven by large investments in faster networks and by a fomenting burble of apps, phones, tablets, and Web services. More investment, more capacity, and more compelling devices drive yet more consumer demand and create new bottlenecks.”
Getting the government’s blessing
If wireless providers want to control bigger pieces of the spectrum, why can’t they simply do it? FCC officials would answer that question by referencing a tradition of public policy that dates back to the so-called railroad barons of the late 19th century.
One of the purposes of agencies like the FCC is to make sure that businesses don’t engage in practices that stifle competition or create monopolies. Since the federal government treats the wireless spectrum as something that belongs to the public, requests for more capacity need regulatory approval.
As a result, the FCC and telecom companies continue to engage in the same deliberate, bureaucratic routine. As demand grows larger by the day, these reluctant dance partners shuffle their way through hearings, auctions and other procedures that take weeks, months or even years.
Time to re-examine the spectrum
The growing popularity of mobile computing and advances in Wi-Fi technology have changed the wireless market forever. Wireless provider CLEAR, for example, developed America’s first 4G network and designed it specifically for Internet use.
These changes suggest that when it comes to control and licensing of the wireless spectrum, the public and private sectors can’t afford to view the world through the same old lens. The people they serve — citizens and consumers — can’t afford it either.