In Depth: So what is spectrum?
As CNET explains, all wireless communications signals — for televisions, radios, GPS devices, cell phones, smart appliances, etc — travel through the air via radio frequency. This is spectrum. For example, a radio tuned to 97.7 FM will pick up a signal from a station broadcasting at 97.7 megahertz. Two stations broadcasting from the same city at the same frequency will interfere with one another.
Like radio stations, wireless operators like AT&T and Verizon cannot use the same frequencies in the same areas at the same time, without causing interference. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auctions off pieces of spectrum to mobile carriers, and keeps track of who is licensed to use what.
Over the years, the FCC has awarded spectrum between 700 MHz and 2.6 GHz to mobile phone carriers. With increased mobile use, this range has been almost fully allocated, meaning there is no more spectrum for wireless companies to purchase if they want to increase their service or capacity. This is complicated by the fact that smartphones use 24 times more data — tablets can use 122 more — than a flip phone.
As we approach a spectrum shortage, this bill directs federal agencies to figure out a way to reallocate the airways and make more room for commercial wireless use.
As Paige Atkins of the Office of Spectrum Management explains:
“Spectrum is a finite resource. We can’t make more of it, but we can work to manage it more efficiently than we did in the past when demand was not as high. And there are many competing needs for this spectrum. Federal government agencies also have critical and escalating needs for spectrum to support their important missions and have invested substantial resources on technologies that rely on spectrum. Moving these systems to new bands in order to make more spectrum available for commercial purposes takes considerable planning and can cost billions of dollars.”
In addition to requiring the government to meet its goal of freeing up 500 MHz, the bill would:
Conduct spectrum assessments
The bill directs the Department of Commerce to evaluate several spectrum bands (that are currently used for other purposes) for potential wireless use. Some of these frequencies are specifically ideal for advancing 5G wireless technologies. The Department will assess the feasibility of commercial mobile or fixed terrestrial wireless operations in these bands, and if feasible, determine which frequencies are best suited. The Department will also evaluate how this would affect any federal and non-federal entities already operating in these ranges.
Speed up 5G infrastructure
Mobile carriers are looking to move to faster
, which will require smaller antenna and infrastructure systems than current technology. This legislation requires federal agencies to speed up the placement of wireless structures on federal property.
Encourage "dig once" policies
The bill encourages the federal adoption of cost-saving "dig once" policies, where broadband wires are laid in the ground at the same time as other underground infrastructure work (such as highway construction).
The bill directs the Department of Commerce to issue a report on additional ways to incentivize federal entities to turn over or share their spectrum with non-federal spectrum users.
Of Note: Sponsoring Sen. John Thune said in a statement:
“America needs these reforms to continue the era of digital innovation by forging ultra-fast wireless connections with everything from light-bulbs to cars through smart use of our limited spectrum resources.”