Candidate sources include TV and satellite frequencies

Everybody reading this on a wireless device, raise your hand. We thought so! Our readers are unusually up to date. Those old-style Ethernet cables into the wall are so Twentieth Century.

The FCC has noticed all of us using our phones like little laptops and TVs, and our wireless laptops for everything else we do online. All of that data has to ride on radio waves. Other things being equal, more data will require more radio spectrum. As part of its ambitious National Broadband Plan, the FCC is looking to find some.

The FCC will have to look hard, because we are going to need a lot of spectrum. Recent increases in demand are impressive. AT&T, with its ubiquitous iPhones, shows an annual growth in service of 268%. The other major carriers are close behind. Analysts expect continued sharp growth over the next several years.

What is driving the demand? The FCC politely calls it “users engag[ing] with data-intensive social networking applications and user-generated video content.” Judging from the people at Starbucks, we think it’s mostly Facebook videos of college kids horsing around. But if people are willing to pay for it, the carriers will try to deliver, and the FCC will work on helping them find enough spectrum.

The goal is 500 MHz, newly available, of which 300 MHz should be between 225 MHz and 3.7 GHz. The FCC does not explain these boundaries, but we will. Lower frequencies need bigger antennas; 225 MHz is around the lower limit for a hand-held device. And frequencies that are too high do not propagate well; anything much above 3.7 GHz is not practical for mobile applications.

The most-discussed proposal – and most reviled, in some circles – would convert 120 MHz of TV broadcast spectrum, 20 channels’ worth, to wireless broadband applications. After all, the FCC may have reasoned, auctioning just 52 MHz of the former 700 MHz TV spectrum brought in $19.6 billion. So let’s do it again, but more so. Only 10% of households still depend on over-the-air TV, so where’s the problem – especially since the broadcasters can all stay in business, once we arrange for them to share whatever channels remain. And those who give up spectrum voluntarily will be in for a cut of the auction revenues. Everybody wins, right?

Such is the gist of the FCC’s thinking.

Another 90 MHz would come from mobile satellite spectrum. Those licensees can offer terrestrial cellphone-like service on their frequencies, so long as they also provide service through satellites. The FCC could improve access to their spectrum by easing the satellite requirements. The traditional wireless providers, which have opposed similar moves in the past, might come around if they are allowed to participate in offering service.

Where it cannot displace incumbents by offering money (see broadcast spectrum, above), the FCC plans to try the opposite tactic: taking money away. The idea is to charge a “spectrum fee” for shared frequencies that are used for a single purpose. Those would include much two-way radio, most fixed microwave, and possibly satellite services. One proposal is to start with a low fee and gradually raise it until the fee is unaffordable for present uses, thus encouraging licensees to shift to other, presumably more valuable uses. No details on how this would work. Government spectrum users would be subject to a similar fee; no details on that, either. 

Nor has the FCC overlooked unlicensed applications, which now include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a vast array of consumer, commercial, and industrial equipment. Goals include “free[ing] up a new, contiguous nationwide band” for unlicensed use – assuming such a swath can be found somewhere; encouraging spectrum-agile radios that can use temporarily empty spectrum; and finishing the long-running “white space” proceeding on unlicensed use of vacant TV spectrum (which may be in short supply, if the FCC auctions off large numbers of TV channels).

Finally, the FCC acknowledges the need for more “backhaul” spectrum to move broadband data between cell towers and network facilities. (Read more about that here.) It proposes some technical rule fixes that might help providers to backhaul services more efficiently.

The FCC’s calling this document a National Broadband “Plan” is a bit of stretch. On the spectrum issues, at least, it is more of a rough outline of how to develop a plan. The proposals are missing key details. Many will take years to work through; spectrum allocation proceedings are typically among the very slowest at the FCC. Some key steps will require action by Congress, which rarely comes swiftly.

We’ll check back on the outcomes later in the decade – with any luck, on our ultra-high-speed handheld using newly available spectrum. Or, if all else fails, we can always plug the Ethernet wire back in.

[Blogmeister note: This is one in a series of posts describing the range of regulatory and societal areas in which the National Broadband Plan could, and likely will, affect us all. Click here to find other posts in this series.]