Spectrum Lemonade, Anyone?

Spectrum Lemonade, Anyone?


What kind of future would people of color face if they fall far behind the rest of the nation in the adoption of broadband – the technology that fuels job creation and economic opportunity in the Internet age?  Can we ever close the digital divide?

During an Open Forum on spectrum hosted this week by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), Louis Peraertz, wireless legal adviser to FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, underscored the need to close digital divide through accessibility, affordability, and adoption of broadband.  Mobile Future Chairman Jonathan Spalter added that although “minorities are leading the way in our mobile evolution,” a spectrum shortage deeply impacts large, densely populated, majority-minority urban areas.  Spalter concluded that “we need to make spectrum lemonade out of spectrum lemons.”

Essentially, we need to find ways to take the spectrum that is currently available and distribute and use it in the most effective way possible.  Blair Levin of the Aspen Institute and the wireless advisors to the three FCC commissioners agreed.  However, determining the best approach for achieving this goal is and continues to be up for debate.

Wireless spectrum consists of the electromagnetic frequencies that carry signals from your cell phone to your carrier’s tower and eventually to the person you are calling.  Think of spectrum as the lifeblood of wireless, without it, mobile broadband services cannot function.  With this said, it’s obvious why this issue is so incredibly important to wireless providers. Wireless consumers would also be wise to take notice.

We all love our mobile broadband devices – those wonderful gadgets that allow us to multitask to our heart’s content.  However, it’s safe to say that we all very much despise slow data speeds that hinder our ability to effectively partake in society’s bittersweet relationship with digital technology – and so do providers.

Wireless providers are determined to take the “bitter” out of the equation, striving instead to leave consumers’ content and satisfied with their mobile broadband service.

However, this lofty goal does not come without its share of challenges.  The biggest challenge the FCC faces is taking spectrum used for some other purpose – digital television, or military applications – and repurposing it for wireless.  As FCC Chairman Genachowski’s wireless advisor, Amy Levine, explained at the MMTC Forum,  “it is absolutely a challenge to find clean, big blocks of … spectrum that can be reallocated to wireless.”  Blair Levin, who headed FCC’s development of the landmark National Broadband Plan, declared that the U.S. is “moving backwards, not forwards” in repurposing spectrum for wireless broadband.

Although Spalter estimates that the nation will hit “spectrum exhaust” in major markets in 2014, the spectrum reallocation and redeployment process can take several years.  Angela Giancarlo, chief of staff to Commissioner Robert McDowell, summed up the issue:  “Time is money is lost opportunity.”

As consumer demand continues to skyrocket, wireless providers’ ability to effectively meet the demand is becoming very difficult as a result of our current spectrum deficit.

So how do we make “spectrum lemonade?”  Wireless provider Verizon has its own idea.  In a bid to relieve its congested network and bring mobile broadband to more Americans, the wireless provider is seeking approval to purchase wireless licenses from cable provider Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Bright House, and Cox Communications in an effort to acquire additional spectrum to build out its wireless network.

Another option includes voluntary incentive auctions, which have been hailed by many as the best way to ensure fair spectrum allocation.  This option would allow broadcasters to voluntarily transfer unused digital television spectrum to the FCC, who in turn would auction this spectrum to wireless carriers.  Earnings from the incentive auction would be split down the middle and returned to the U.S. Treasury and broadcasters who volunteered their spectrum reserves.

One vital issue we need to place front and center is whether any of the reallocated spectrum will find its way into the hands of the nation’s burgeoning community of minority digital entrepreneurs.  At the MMTC Forum, attorney S. Jenell Trigg called attention to troubling language buried in Congress’ newly-adopted legislation authorizing the FCC to repurpose some digital television spectrum for wireless.  Trigg, one of the nation’s very few African American high-technology lawyers, noted that although minority entrepreneurs are leading job creators and innovators in the high tech space, they’ve won almost no spectrum in recent auctions and may face another shutout from accessing the valuable spectrum – public property – the FCC will auction in the next two years.

Wherever the FCC, policymakers, and industry leaders stand, one thing remains certain – we need to reallocate available spectrum resources to ensure continued growth and sustainability of America’s wireless industry.  There is only a limited amount of spectrum to go around relative to very fast growing consumer demand, driven by smartphones and computer games.  Therefore, whether private sector efforts such as Verizon’s proposed deal or government efforts such as incentive auctions are pursued, the goal remains to allocate spectrum resources in a way that is most effective, expedient and fair, and will ultimately help to eliminate the risk of jeopardizing an industry that is showing great success during a down economy.

Equally as important is ensuring continued consumer satisfaction with wireless services and industry innovation and growth.  With more Americans becoming increasingly reliant on wireless services and African Americans and Hispanics, in particular, leading the charge in U.S. mobile broadband adoption and use, there is too much at stake to let politics get in the way of addressing our nation’s spectrum crunch.

We simply can’t afford to risk a $322 billion industry – or the nation’s 300 million wireless consumers – by unnecessarily delaying efforts to allocate spectrum resources.  CTIA reports that the wireless industry currently employs 2.4 million Americans and is expected to create an additional 205,000 jobs by 2015, not to mention countless opportunities for minority entrepreneurs and small business owners.

With all this said, I say let’s make some lemonade – pronto.



  1. I hope that the Commission will listen to everything that was discussed at the panel and act swiftly to rectify the issues with the spectrum legislation.

  2. I was always told the biggest problems in the world could have been solved when they were small. Although the spectrum crunch is not a “small” problem, it can only get bigger as time is wasted. The FCC is obviously very aware of this spectrum problem now…the question is, “Do they want to solve the problem now, or wait until it gets out of control?”

  3. I attended this forum yesterday, and I thought that it was a really great discussion. Spectrum incentive auctions seem like a great idea to have. I think if it is implemented fairly, it could help increase minority and women ownership, avert the spectrum exhaustion crisis from getting worse, and allow spectrum to be purchased by other industries to foster innovation.

    I've also been to other events where Atty. Trigg was either in the audience or on the panel, and I think she always ask great questions that gets people thinking. I hope the FCC advisers will take her questions back to their offices and address those issues.

  4. Can’t understand what the FCC is waiting for? I, for one, don’t want to lose what I have already gotten used to, the ability to quickly get information I need from the internet, my cell phone, and my tablet. It sounds like incentive auctions and buying unused Spectrum could be an easy fix. Let’s do it!

  5. I am on the road 24/7 and use my cell phone for business. Right now, I can pull up documents, write a letter, send emails, receive emails, just as if I were sitting at my desk. I can’t imagine losing these abilities, which is what might happen if we don’t look at this spectrum problem now and find a solution fast! Incentive Auctions? Sounds like a great idea to me. And, I appreciate that Verizon wants to step up to the plate and buy unused spectrum from other companies. It sounds to me like a win-win.

  6. Great discussion at yesterday's forum. With the lengthy time it takes to get spectrum from auction to market, we need to examine other opportunities to increase our spectrum efficiencies and supply. As we examine these deals, we should absolutely be looking at how to increase minority participation in the industry. We cannot allow the absurdly low levels of minority participation in media to continue in our digital frontier.

  7. We indeed need to make lemonade "pronto." As an attendee at yesterday's forum, major thanks are in order to Trigg for making sure the minority perspective was heard in the spectrum discourse.

  8. Let’s just say that if more spectrum is not given to the wireless sector, minority advancement will cease. We need to repurpose spectrum in the right direction.

  9. I attended the MMTC Spectrum Forum and appreciated the attention given to the impact of these issues on minorities, small businesses, and vulnerable communities. Kudos to all who participated!

  10. I agree with the author's contention that we need to reallocate spectrum now and underscore the point that the reallocated spectrum needs to find it's way into the hands of "the nation's burgeoning community of minority digital entrepreneurs." If the FCC auctions off what is arguably public property, then minority entrepreneurs need to be afforded the opportunity to fairly compete. I wasn't able to attend the MMTC conference, but as a minority and a consumer, I am in interesed in hearing the ideas and proposals that are being furthered before the FCC. Hopefully they address the interests of minorities with respect to spectrum ownership and their reliance on and need for wireless service.

  11. Consumption of too much lemonade leads to cavities and diabetes.

    The 'wireless spectrum crunch' is a hoax invented by the U.S. telephone oligarchy to privatize more and more spectrum for their own purposes. The proposal to auction slices of spectrum to them is a bad answer to a problem that doesn't exist.

  12. Such a good read. I hate to hone in on the last bit but it is really one of the more salient points in the article. The fact that there is a process, spectrum incentive auctions etc. is great but as was pointed out at the Policy Committee by Mr. Levin, we may have to be sunny about it and prepare for what is to come. The author was correct in her assessment that, "We simply can’t afford to risk a $322 billion industry – or the nation’s 300 million wireless consumers – by unnecessarily delaying efforts to allocate spectrum resources."

    It seems that the bottom line is that we will be waiting and that in the meantime people WILL be paying more and that the decisions that could have changed the current landscape have been made.