In the US, we are off to a brisk start to the new legislative year. The re-emergence of the Mobile NOW Act is a case in point, with the objective to find more radio spectrum to meet future consumer demand on our smartphones, tablets, and other devices.
Yet, with thousands of megahertz of new spectrum allocations and assignments in various stages of completion, one might wonder – do we still need Mobile NOW? Why does Senator John Thune think that we need even more radio spectrum to sustain our fascination with an ever-increasing array of mobile devices? Or our fascination with more cat & dog videos?
To answer those questions, let’s review where we stand with spectrum. The voluntary incentive auction for 600 MHz spectrum will end well (and soon!), but perhaps with a result not quite as brilliant as many had initially hoped. Transition of the highly coveted AWS-3 bands (1.7/2.1 GHz) from government use to commercial is continuing, but not complete. Licensing of the shared 3.5 GHz spectrum is not on any kind of fast track, with industry likely to first familiarize itself with generally-authorized access. Millimeter wave spectrum (above 24 GHz) at this point is best viewed as the new frontier of cellular and unlicensed systems, with some licensed spectrum available at 28 GHz, but lots of work left to be done on other bands from a technology or regulatory perspective. Finally, we’re all waiting to see what happens to the 20 megahertz of public safety “FirstNet” spectrum in the upper 700 MHz band, and we’ve been promised an answer soon.
Against this backdrop, Mobile NOW asks the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to find at least 255 megahertz of spectrum below 6 GHz of which at least 100 megahertz shall be made available for exclusively licensed commercial use and at least 100 megahertz shall be for unlicensed devices. The bill would give the agencies until the end of 2020 to produce a plan – which might seem like forever, but in the world of spectrum policy is pretty darned quick.
Will more spectrum be needed? No doubt about that, particularly post-2020 when 5G implementation and growth in the Internet of Things should be well under way.
It’s also worth noting that Mobile NOW’s 2016 incarnation earned the unanimous vote of the Senate Commerce Committee. That vote represents an important bipartisan consensus about the key role wireless broadband plays in the US economy – a consensus that the Congress should keep in mind as it evaluates Mobile NOW in 2017.
As the Committee’s Report last year summed up, “It can take years to identify spectrum that can be made available for commercial use, allocate the spectrum, create service rules, develop auction rules for spectrum to be auctioned, conduct an auction, and relocate incumbent operations, all before beginning to deploy the networks providing service to American consumers.”
So it’s important that the Congress kicks off a process “now” in order to deliver us to a Mobile Tomorrow.