Two big waves in the wireless world are driving the need for more spectrum, the radio signals that carry data to our phones, tablets and other mobile devices.
First, the boom in mobile video, which demands far more capacity than previous mobile applications, is changing the nature of wireless data traffic. The millennial and post-millennial generations are consuming far more entertainment on mobile devices than their TV- and PC-bound elders. They videochat on FaceTime and Skype and send video clips on Snapchat and Instagram. Facebook's new auto-roll video clips now begin playing without a click from the user, turning your newsfeed into a cascading video feed. And apps like Periscope allow celebrities, reporters (and anyone else) to stream real-time video from their phones to their followers.
Meanwhile, the emerging Internet of Things — what I call the immersive Internet — is driving the next big acceleration in the volume of connected devices. The idea that most people on earth now have mobile phones is staggering. These billions of mobile computers far outnumber the connected devices of the earlier Internet era, PCs. As the world becomes saturated with 7 billion or so mobile phones, however, the immersive Internet will multiply that total several times over. In the next decade, we might connect 50 billion or so devices to the Internet — every car, watch, boat, shoe, package, shipping container, medical device, vending machine, camera, drone, you name it.
The number of devices and the nature of traffic will thus require far more wireless spectrum than is commercially available today. Last week, Larry Strickling, the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, highlighted this need, pointing to the government's goal of unleashing 500 megahertz of new spectrum by 2020. "Pending the FCC's broadcast incentive auction planned for early next year," boasted Strickling, "NTIA and the FCC will have made available up to 389 MHz in federal, commercial or shared bands to meet the 500 MHz target."
But this is a very liberal and optimistic interpretation. Almost half of that 389 MHz is contained in a pilot program of spectrum that is to be shared between the government (specifically, the Navy) and the commercial world. The shared spectrum program is an important and useful idea, but it's only a baby step, and it will take years to launch and refine. Another huge chunk — some 100 MHz — is "pending" a successful incentive auction of underused broadcast TV spectrum. But this auction, perhaps the most complex in history, has already been delayed several times. It is mired in complicated rules, litigation and now renewed efforts to reopen the already controversial rules. And of the new licensed spectrum actually cleared for commercial use in the last eight years, a single company, Dish Network, which has no mobile customers, acquired over half of it. In truth, we are thus far short of the 500 MHz goal.
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