A lot can change in five years.
Case in point: the telecommunications industry, which just half a decade ago was mainly focused on providing customers with voice calls and texting capabilities. Then Steve Jobs took the stage one afternoon and held up a product he called the iPhone, and since that day the telecom industry — and the computer industry as a whole, really — has been witness to disruption after disruption. Voice minutes are being replaced by data plans. Texting is receiving major competition from Twitter.
While the past five years have been amazing to watch, they’ve also created challenges. And right now, there’s perhaps no bigger challenge — no bigger threat to the continued health and success of the mobile broadband revolution — than a lack of spectrum.
If you’ve followed mobile technology at all over the past year or so, chances are you’ve heard of America’s looming “spectrum crunch.” The very real problem of a shortage of airwaves for the wireless industry — a shortage that will make it extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, for wireless providers to keep up with demand. Congress and the FCC have been working to address this shortage via so-called “incentive auctions,” a process where spectrum holders such as broadcasters are encouraged — and well-compensated — for giving up some of their spectrum holdings for wireless use.
While it’s doubtful the spectrum obtained through these auctions alone will be enough for wireless providers to keep up with skyrocketing demand, they’re still vital for the health of the industry and our economy as a whole. But as with most things in government, the process has been painfully slow, which is why two statements from recently appointed FCC Commissioners this week have been encouraging.
The first came from Commissioner Ajit Pai while he was delivering a speech at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. While laying out his vision for the FCC going forward,Pai said:
[T]he FCC must act with the same alacrity as the industry we oversee. That’s not to say we should rush to regulate, but delays at the Commission have substantial real-world consequences: new technologies remain on the shelves; capital lies fallow; and entrepreneurs stop hiring or, even worse, reduce their workforce as they wait for regulatory uncertainty to work itself out.
Pai then went on to talk about the incentive auctions, stating:
[T]he Commission should kick-off the rule-making process for implementing incentive auctions this fall and set a deadline to conduct those auctions no later than June 30, 2014.
Whether such a deadline for auctions is feasible remains to be seen, but it’s a positive sign that a Commissioner of the FCC — a government body even Pai admits has “long had a reputation in Washington as an agency that moves too slowly” — is speaking so strongly about speeding up the process.
Also encouraging were statements from Pai’s fellow recent appointee to the Commission, Jessica Rosenworcel, who just a few days later hit on the need to speed things up — especially for freeing up more spectrum — in a statement of her own. As she said during a FCC meeting yesterday:
We all know that the President has called for 500 megahertz of spectrum to be cleared for commercial use within ten years. We are making progress at the Commission, including in our review of how to provide for more flexible use of the 2 GHz band currently assigned to Mobile Satellite Service. Plus, we have a series of auctions, including incentive auctions, on the near-term horizon. To bring certainty to the marketplace, I believe we should put these auctions on a clear timeline.
So there you have it. Two FCC Commissioners, one a Republican and one a Democrat, agreeing that in order to address America’s spectrum needs the Commission start turning words intoaction. It’s another positive example of the Commission under Chairman Julius Genachowski working to keep pace with the speed of technology, and while the FCC may not be there yet, here’s hoping it happens soon.
Because who knows what things will be like five years from now?