FCC Chairman: Spectrum deficit could set wireless data back 50 years

"We are fast entering a world where mass-market mobile devices consume thousands of megabytes each month," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski warned at CTIA Wireless yesterday. "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 short answer: We will need a lot more spectrum."

Given the current allotment of spectrum, Genachowski's statement sounds like Roy Scheider in Jaws.

But his portents were even more severe.

"I believe that that the biggest threat to the future of mobile in America is the looming spectrum crisis," Genachowski also said.

It's not often that the FCC uses a term like "crisis," especially when the issue is one as ostensibly benign as a bottleneck in the flow of data. But Genachowski is not warning of a crisis where economies crumble and families are forced to move into bomb shelters. This is a crisis of design, where more people are consuming far more bandwidth than originally anticipated.

Let's put this "crisis" into perspective: Genachowski said that there will be a 30-fold increase in wireless traffic, which will demand new wireless technologies be put in place by 2013.

The DTV transition freed the 700 MHz block and increased the available wireless spectrum by a multiple of three, Genachowski estimated. But that took more than five years to complete.

At that rate, it would take 50 years to accommodate our wireless data growth.

So fixing the "spectrum gap" is one of the FCC's highest priorities, Genachowski said. Looking at the wireless spectrum chart, anyone can see that sorting out licenses will be like sequencing the human genome, but the Commission has no choice: It must identify spectrum that's being underutilized, and re-allocate it to mobile broadband.

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