AT&T’s Spectrum Crunch Ideas
By: Jason Llorenz
June 14, 2012
A tip of the hat is in order for AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, for offering a convincing set of ideas for addressing the spectrum shortage that threatens to toss a dried up bouquet into the middle of our romance with wireless technology.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, Stephenson identified the unhappy irony of the wireless business’s booming success – it depends on a scare resource whose supply is about to be eclipsed by the growing public appetite for more. Not that spectrum is actually running out. Rather the right to use these critical airwaves has been allocated by government in such a way that wireless carriers don’t have access to enough of it to meet rapidly growing demand for services. President Obama and FCC Commissioner, Julius Genachowski, agree that re-allocation of critical airwaves is necessary to meet skyrocketing consumer demand for mobile broadband services. But that’s a multi-year process that won’t happen in time to address a shortage that is likely to hit as early as next year in the largest markets with the highest Latino populations.
Stephenson mapped out three specific things government can do in the short term – none of which involve taxpayer money – to help wireless companies access the critical airwaves that allow consumers to make calls and businesses to access and to more quickly send data on the mobile Internet. And, in contrast to the anti-government rhetoric that often colors proposals from business executives, Stephenson implicitly acknowledged that government can play a positive role.
Stephenson even called out “speculators” who are sitting on unused spectrum in hopes of an investment gain. Stephenson’s solution is a bit of tough government that would force spectrum holders to use it or lose. In his vision, spectrum holders would get a reasonable time certain to put that spectrum to work or, by sale or partnership, turn it over to somebody who will. This would help spur more investment in America’s wireless infrastructure.
It’s a fair-minded concept that avoids the sort of “big government” directives that sometimes inserts regulators in the day-to-day of business strategy, but also recognizes government’s ability to act in the broad public interest. As Mr. Stephenson noted, the FCC has recently begun to move in this direction by adding tighter build out schedules in approving transactions involving spectrum.
The free market should be allowed to work so that those with unused spectrum can bring it online for consumers much more quickly.
Right now, such transfers require government review that can take a year or more. That’s a long time to wait in an industry where transformative innovations like the iPhone change the game overnight and demand for bandwidth is expected to climb 75 percent or more annually for the next five years.
Finally, and this is a tougher one because it touches on the traditional division of government authority between Washington and local jurisdictions, Stephenson seeks a national framework for getting cell tower infrastructure built. The unfortunate reality is that even with more spectrum, building new cell phone relay towers relies on local approvals that can seriously delay service improvements. Adding towers and other infrastructure enables more efficient use of spectrum so that the same amount of spectrum goes a longer way.
Stephenson envisions a national model to speed up local approvals, much as Congress once intervened to speed the construction of the railroads and the interstate highway system. That might be a heavy lift given the partisan divide in D.C., but it’s worth considering since mobile Internet connectivity may be just as vital to the U.S. economy in the 21st century as overland transportation was in earlier decades.
The economic implications shouldn’t be overlooked: freeing up spectrum in the short-term stimulates investment that creates jobs at a time they are in short supply.
We don’t know if any of these ideas will fly, but Stephenson gets a thumbs up for offering reasonable specifics instead of either whining or complaining at policymakers.
Jason A. Llorenz, Esq. is Executive Director, the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP). Follow on Twitter: @hispanicttp. www.httponline.org.