The FCC made two groundbreaking decisions today to put more radio spectrum to work delivering broadband connectivity to consumers — one which will improve 5 GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi and the second that makes more licensed cellular spectrum available for wireless broadband.  Taken together, these two decisions represent a meaningful down-payment on the 500 MHz of spectrum that the FCC said was necessary to meet the growing demand for spectrum in its 2010 National Broadband Plan.

The decision on 5 GHz spectrum is significant action that will allow consumers to use the full capabilities of the next generation of Wi-Fi technology.   In effect, the FCC has eliminated the “speed bump” that impeded the full use of the 5150-5250 MHz band, and paved over two “potholes” that existed in the 5470-5725 and 5725-5850 MHz bands – one 50 MHz wide and one 25 MHz wide.  As a result of these and other technical rule changes, the FCC has accelerated the ability of consumers to get the most out of new, Gigabit Wi–Fi technologies that are increasingly embedded in their smartphones, tablets and TVs.  This will make it easier for all of us to consume a wide range of content on our mobile devices, most notably high definition video without frustrating lags or delays.    

The second decision – which establishes auction rules for paired, AWS-3 spectrum — is a true milestone in U.S. spectrum policy. Two years ago, it was anybody’s guess whether this spectrum could be re-purposed for commercial use.  Despite the fact that this band is harmonized for mobile broadband globally, in the U.S., it is populated by many federal spectrum systems.  But over the past year, the mobile industry, the Commerce Department, the Department of Defense, White House and Executive Branch agencies generally, along with tremendous leadership from the committees of jurisdiction in Congress, each rolled up their sleeves to solve this very tricky spectrum transition problem.  Now it’s the FCC’s turn to complete the work by hosting a spectrum auction for this very valuable piece of spectrum. 

These decisions must be set against the backdrop of how consumers are taking advantage of mobile broadband connectivity.  Simply put, consumers are devouring their data “bytes” on an unprecedented scale.  Cisco projects that on licensed mobile spectrum, consumers will generate 600,000,000,000,000 bytes of data/month (that’s 0.6 exabytes) this year in the United States.   By 2018, we’ll be chomping through 2,700,000,000,000,000 per month  (or 2.7 exabytes).  And that’s less than half the data consumed by your mobile enabled devices – those same devices are generating even more traffic on Wi-Fi networks in your home, office or on the go.  Our devices are becoming more powerful with each new model, our networks are becoming faster, the number of connections is rising, and video, already the dominate application, continues to grow in importance. 

Why then are these two decisions groundbreaking?  

Because they both expose the reality that our previous decisions as a country about how to use radio spectrum have to evolve given the new marketplace realities.  

Nearly all Americans today use mobile broadband and Wi-Fi on a daily basis.  Whether 5 GHz Wi-Fi or AWS-3, these bands are critical because in both cases, an enormous ecosystem of manufacturers, innovators, and service providers exists offering transformative technology to billions of consumers around the globe. Make no mistake – these two bands do not represent a bet that an innovative new technology with spring forth in the wake of an FCC decision.  The technologies are already here, and now we need to catch up.

As soon as the rules are final, and in the case of AWS-3 the auction closes and spectrum is awarded, Wi-Fi and mobile use of the bands is ready to explode.