Technology

FCC considers spectrum shortage

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

There's a precious natural resource that's quickly running out. It's not oil, or clean water, or anything you can see, for that matter. The federal government has turned its attention to what some are calling a dire shortage of radio spectrum.

You don't have to understand the complex diagrams or the jargon being thrown around in the Stanford University conference room to understand what Google's Eric Schmidt is saying.

"People are going to be rioting in the streets at the rate things are going," Schmidt said.

Schmidt sat on a panel, that also included the chairman of the FCC, about the growing concern that Americans are so deeply in love with their smartphones and tablets that the wireless radio spectrum those devices use is running out.

"It's like a highway that's getting too congested and the more congested it gets, the slower the traffic is and the worse our experience will be on these devices," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.

Genachowski says apps like Netflix and Apple's Facetime are part of the reason Americans have doubled their wireless data consumption every year for the last five years, in part thanks to the innovators of Silicon Valley.

"Who knew that you wanted to have your phone be your matchmaker? Who knew that you wanted your phone to be your personal assistant for everything," Schmidt said.

But what it all means is now, that virtual highway needs more lanes.

Right now, the radio spectrum is divided up into lots of little slices. For instance, down near the bottom, you have things like police radios. Right above that, you have things like wireless microphones. Right in the middle, you have the all important smartphone, and right above that, you have things like Bluetooth headsets and Wi-Fi. Well, broadcasters aren't always using their microphones, and the police aren't always calling for backup. But when these two devices aren't being used, their huge slices of spectrum sit empty. So part of the proposed solution is to let all of these devices share one big chunk of spectrum, giving priority, of course, to emergency responders.

Another part of the solution would let some television stations sell back their over-the-air channels.

"Overwhelmingly, people don't watch broadcast TV over the air; they're watching it through cable or satellite," Genachowski said.

And on their mobile devices, if there's enough spectrum.

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Tags:
television, smartphones, FCC, technology, jonathan bloom
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