Incentive Auctions, Smart Radio Technology and Unlicensed Spectrum – Tools to Meet the Exploding Wireless Broadband Demand

Posted by Fred Humphries
Vice President, U.S. Government Affairs, Microsoft

There is little dispute about the rapidly growing demand for wireless broadband connectivity and the strain it places on wireless networks. Policymakers can help to find more spectrum to enable the many devices consumers use to connect to the Internet and to each other. To help industry keep pace with consumer demand, policymakers must act quickly to adopt incentive auction policies, drive the deployment of smart radio technology and facilitate more unlicensed spectrum use including use of the “TV white spaces”.

Consumer demand for wireless broadband connectivity is rapidly growing. In a Staff Technical Working Paper, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported an increase of more than 450 percent in the amount of mobile data consumers used per mobile line between the first quarter of 2009 and the second quarter of 2010, and projected demand to grow to between 25 and 50 times current levels within five years. At the same time, consumers and network operators increasingly use unlicensed spectrum technologies to access wireless broadband. Mobile data offloaded to Wi-Fi hot spots from the networks of mobile operators is expected to reach almost 90 percent by 2015.

Incentive auctions are a crucial part of the solution if we are going to meet consumer demand. Over time, the FCC has allocated most of the available spectrum bands for specific uses. In order to make more spectrum available for broadband, the FCC will have to clear the spectrum band by relocating existing users and driving more efficient spectrum use. Congress must act to grant the FCC incentive auction authority, which will assist the FCC in reclaiming spectrum for wireless broadband. This new authority will enable the FCC to use auction proceeds to compensate existing users of a spectrum band to vacate the band or to relocate to a different portion of spectrum, thereby making more spectrum available.  

Policies that encourage the deployment of smart radio technology will help. Spectrum in practice isn’t being used everywhere all the time. Smart radio technology, as the FCC describes it, “can react and self-adjust to local changes in spectrum use or environmental conditions to obtain access to spectrum without causing harmful interference,” making more spectrum available for use.

The technology emerging to use the vacant channels in the television band, the so called “TV white spaces,” is an example. White spaces work being done at Microsoft and elsewhere will enable consumer devices such as phones and laptops to communicate with a database that will identify the vacant channels at their location. These devices can then provide wireless broadband connectivity without causing interference to other users in the band. In addition to trials on its Redmond campus, Microsoft has also participated in trials in Claudville, Va.; Seattle, Wash.; and in Las Vegas at the National Broadcasters convention where we demonstrated HD video streaming over white spaces spectrum.

Unlicensed spectrum remains an important tool. Any device can use spectrum designated as unlicensed as long as the device adheres to FCC rules. Unlicensed policies have been a part of our spectrum management toolkit since 1938, and have facilitated innovations from remote controls and baby monitors to hot spot technologies, and the now emerging Internet-of-Things. More unlicensed use of underutilized bands will help to meet the growing wireless broadband demand for connected devices and, because anyone can access unlicensed spectrum, these policies will promote innovations in smart radio technologies. 

Ultimately, we will need many levers to address the looming wireless broadband crisis, but today, it is important to move as quickly as we can to implement incentive auctions, smart radio technology, TV white spaces and other unlicensed spectrum policies.

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