FCC: U.S. Faces Cellular Spectrum Gap

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San Diego - "The biggest threat to the future of mobile in America is the looming spectrum crisis," the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission told the wireless industry during a trade show here.

"While the short-term outlook for 4G spectrum availability is adequate, the longer-term picture is very different," chairman Julius Genachowski said today at the International CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment show. The lack of spectrum is a long-term barrier to ubiquitous, affordable mobile broadband service, he warned.

"We are fast entering a world where mass-market mobile devices consume thousands of megabytes each month," he said in a speech to attendees. "So we must ask: What happens when every mobile user has an iPhone, a Palm Pre, a Blackberry Tour or whatever the next device is? What happens when we quadruple the number of subscribers with mobile broadband on their laptops or netbooks?"

The industry will need a lot more spectrum to keep up with demand, and although new spectrum is coming on line in short order, it won't be adequate to meet long-term demand, he said. "Counting last year's 700 MHz auction, the FCC in recent years has authorized a three-fold increase in commercial spectrum. The problem is many anticipate a 30-fold increase in wireless traffic."

"One of the FCC's highest priorities is to close the spectrum gap," he said.

"The less spectrum available for mobile broadband, the more service will cost and the longer it will take to make 4G ubiquitous," he continued. "And that doesn't serve our national needs." Carriers contend they each need anywhere from 40MHz to 150MHz "to bring the benefits of broadband to American consumers," he added.

It will take some time to find and allocate the needed spectrum, Genachowski warned. "As this audience knows, it takes years to reallocate spectrum and put it to use.  And there are no easy pickings on the spectrum chart. But we have no choice. We must identify spectrum that can best be reinvested in mobile broadband."

In the meantime, carriers and the FCC will have to manage spectrum better to ease congestion, he said. "Smart spectrum policy will be part of the solution," he said. Flexible FCC spectrum policies will be part of the mix, as will Wi-Fi, which lets carriers "offload to fixed broadband as much as 40% of traffic in the home, freeing up capacity of licensed spectrum." New technologies like smart antennas and femtocells also hold promise, he said.

Also in the short term, the FCC will speed up the process of approving new cell towers. "We are ready to help you cut through red tape and overcome these hurdles," he said. "I have consulted with my fellow commissioners, and in the near future we are going to move forward with a shot-clock proposal designed to speed the process, while taking into account the legitimate concerns of local authorities.


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