Jobs Plan Creates Opportunity, Risk in Wireless Tech

A lot of attention is being paid to President Obama’s American Jobs Act, both inside and outside the Beltway, and what it could mean for the economy and the millions of unemployed Americans. (Though it’s worth noting that the government has already done at least one good thing to save jobs, by filing suit to block the job-killing merger of AT&T and T-Mobile.)

Some of the attention centers on a portion of the bill that deals with spectrum, the airwaves required for all wireless communications. The Act would move forward an agenda item of the Obama administration by authorizing some television channels to sell their spectrum, with part of the proceeds going toward the creation of a nationwide public safety broadband network.

If it passes, the Act will determine the future of something very important to the economy and the public interest: unlicensed spectrum.

Though it doesn’t get the attention it deserves, unlicensed spectrum creates tremendous benefits for society. Think for a minute about how you use wireless on a day-to-day basis. Do you use a laptop computer at home, at work, at a coffee shop, or all three? Do you have a Bluetooth headset for your phone, or does your cellphone connect to your car’s audio system to play music or take a call? Do you own a cordless landline phone or a walkie-talkie? A garage-door opener?

All of these devices use unlicensed wireless spectrum. They communicate over airwaves that the Federal Communications Commission has reserved for public use. That’s why you don’t have to pay Verizon $20 per month for the privilege of using your baby monitor, and why AT&T can’t charge you a $1 fee for each call you make from the car. Unlicensed spectrum is free for all to use, and unlicensed wireless technologies handle all the complexities of managing congestion and sharing capacity among users.

Furthermore, because any company can build devices that communicate over the spectrum — without having to go through any gatekeepers for permission — unlicensed spectrum has enabled some amazing technological innovations and created significant consumer benefits.

Think again about your laptop, and the number of random places where you’ve been able to go online and send an email, make a Skype call or do some last-minute research. Internet access is available at libraries, offices, airports and even city parks, often for free. These connections are powered by unlicensed spectrum — specifically, Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is free for anyone to use, and Internet access via Wi-Fi is so cheap and so highly valued that it has become nearly ubiquitous in many urban areas, creating many more opportunities for connectivity and productivity.

The FCC did a great thing for the public a few years back. The agency adopted an order declaring that gaps in between television channels — so-called “white spaces” — could be used as unlicensed spectrum. Technology companies and public interest groups praised the agency for this action, which could enable a sort of “super Wi-Fi” and a range of other applications. Although it’s taken a little while to work out the details, devices that communicate using white spaces are on the verge of entering the market.

The future of unlicensed spectrum is filled with even more possibilities, from supporting new commercial wireless services to helping broadband reach communities where wires can’t be relied on. But this future is at risk, if spectrum auctions always allow the highest bidder to crowd out unlicensed users.

Some recent legislative proposals for spectrum auctions include limited protections for the public’s white spaces victory. Other proposals put it in jeopardy by preventing the FCC from directly allocating new spectrum for unlicensed use. The language in the American Jobs Act doesn’t include enough protections for unlicensed spectrum but revisions may improve the proposal.

Unlicensed spectrum enables technological innovation and provides new business opportunities, which in turn create jobs. It should be part of any jobs package, and it produces many tangible goods. Hopefully, as the bill’s details get worked out, the government won’t let unlicensed spectrum — and its many public and private benefits — become collateral damage.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good