The FCC remains focused on rapidly expanding spectrum for licensed and unlicensed use, and encouraging both research and products that will let it be used more efficiently, according to the commission's boss.
That focus has served the U.S. well, according to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who responded to questions during an event Wednesday at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. Four years ago, he told the audience, the U.S. was lagging in key wireless broadband indicators compared to Asia and Europe. Today, the nation has "leapfrogged other countries," he said.
"Mobile innovation is U.S.-driven," he said. "The percentage of global mobile devices that have an American OS has gone from under 20% to over 80%. Apps are American-driven. And in [mobile] infrastructure, America has more LTE customers than the rest of the world combined." In the last two years alone, private investment in mobile networks has totaled about $65 billion.
Genachowski participated in a day of demonstrations, lectures and a late afternoon Q&A session hosted by Wireless@MIT, more formally known as the MIT Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing. The Center was launched last October to be a "focal point for wireless research at MIT" with more than 50 MIT faculty members, research staff and grad students, working with seven founding partners: Amazon, Cisco, Intel, MediaTek, Microsoft Research, STMicroelectronics and Telefonica.
The country still faces spectrum challenges, Genachowski said, and policy makers need to be working on "freeing up more spectrum and having forward-looking spectrum policies. A smartphone puts a demand on spectrum that's 25 times more than that of a feature phone."
"The mobile infrastructure doesn't work without spectrum," he said. "No one anticipated the growth and demand we're seeing now. It's putting tremendous stress on the system. And we have to figure out ways to address that."
Genachowski said there have been two major spectrum innovations in the last 30 years: the introduction of auctions to allocate spectrum and the introduction of unlicensed bands, which helped fuel the growth of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, other RF technologies and the ecosystems of products and software that have sprung up around them.
"It seems inconceivable to me that these would be the last two innovations in spectrum policy," he said.
Possible new ones include what he called "next generation unlicensed spectrum," with higher ranges and lower frequencies, and "a lot more sharing of government spectrum for private use."
The rationalizing of the 300 MHz of nationwide broadcast TV spectrum is an example of the kinds of changes he anticipates. Genachowski said the government has created incentives that persuade some of the broadcasters in every market to sell or share their spectrum. Then, the spectrum will be reorganized into something less than 300 MHz to meet the needs of the remaining broadcasters, with the difference being repackaged and, likely in 2014, auctioned for new uses.
He expects that a "significant part" of this spectrum will be reserved for unlicensed use.
At the same time, the FCC is moving forward to make 5,600 MHz of contiguous "white spaces" spectrum, also from TV bands, available for new uses. "A number of broadcasters have formed a group and they're interested in a reverse auction and in participating in the FCC rulemaking" for it, Genachowski said.
This week, for example, the commission approved a Google project to collect information in a public database on white space spectrum (the gaps between TV bands) that can be used without intruding on protected transmissions like terrestrial TV and radio.
The latest opportunity to expand unlicensed spectrum was launched a few weeks ago, he reminded his audience, with the FCC announcement that it will expand the 5 GHz band by about 35%. [See "FCC will move to give more spectrum to Wi-Fi"] Separately, he said, "we need to create a new unlicensed platform that has different characteristics: higher power, higher range. It's more complex. But at MIT and other places there's wonderful research going on to sustain such a platform."
The 5 GHz expansion will be "on the market in the next year or two." The FCC will need to work with other agencies to allow spectrum sharing. "Our estimate is that about 60% of the usable spectrum for the kinds of uses we know and love is spectrum [today] controlled by the government," he said. "But 60% is too much. Where we can clear and re-allocate and repack that spectrum into more efficient uses, we have to do that."
Genachowski disagreed with an assertion that the value of unlicensed spectrum has "dramatically outstripped" that of licensed spectrum.
"They both provided a tremendous amount of value," he said. "The ways they're now working together are creating more value than either alone."
The country needs policies that "incentivize" major capital investments in wireless broadband infrastructure. "It's one thing to have wireless routers in our homes and offices, where they rely on existing wired infrastructure," he said. "But to have wireless everywhere requires investment. We'll see $35 billion of infrastructure investments this year, on top of $30 billion last year. And licensed spectrum made this possible."
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.