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.