FCC hopes to avoid 'end of world' for cell phones

May 24, 2013: 7:15 AM ET
jessica rosenworcel ctia
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel says the spectrum auction process must be simplified.
LAS VEGAS (CNNMoney)

The path to clearing up enough airwaves to satisfy the insatiable demand for mobile downloads is a confusing, complicated mess.

Mobile data traffic is expected to increase by a factor of 13 in five years, according to Cisco (CSCO). That's why the Federal Communications Commission and carriers are working diligently to free up big swaths of wireless spectrum for mobile devices. By doing so, they're attempting to stave off what most agree would be a miserable outcome if they fail.

"I e-mailed my boss to ask what would happen if we don't free up enough spectrum," said Tom Sugrue, T-Mobile's vice president of government affairs, at a panel discussion held at the CTIA wireless industry trade show in Las Vegas this week. "He wrote, 'It will be the end of the world as we know it.' He didn't put a smiley face at the end or anything."

Wireless spectrum essentially serves as bandwidth for smartphones and tablets. More spectrum can mean faster speeds for mobile downloads; cramped spectrum can lead to spotty service, slower speeds and even higher bills. So as more people use smartphones, wireless carriers and the FCC believe there will soon be a need for more spectrum.

Related story: Sorry, America: Your wireless airwaves are full

As part of an effort to free up a large chunk of spectrum by 2015 for commercial mobile usage, the FCC has already identified some spectrum currently used by TV broadcasters as well as more used by a combination of government agencies and other broadcasters to auction off for mobile usage. Those sales are expected to take place next year.

Sounds good, but nothing in Washington is ever that easy.

Disagreements between carriers and the broadcasters and government agencies that currently license that spectrum are rampant. Just this week, AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) jointly sent an open letter to the FCC, essentially accusing the FCC of stalling the auction process.

There are also major disagreements about how the spectrum should be auctioned, which airwaves should be unlicensed (like Wi-Fi), and how much spectrum sharing is possible.

Related story: 4 ways to stave off the cell phone apocalypse

FCC wants to make Wi-Fi better

In all that, the FCC is pleading with carriers and current licensees to cut through the noise and keep spectrum auctions as simple as possible.

"It's no secret the incentive auctions ahead are complicated: There are policy pitfalls; there are opportunities to get caught in legal cul-de-sacs," said Jessica Rosenworcel, commissioner of the FCC. "Simplicity is the path to successful incentive auctions."

Rosenworcel said the FCC should auction the 65 MHz chunk all at once, hold an open and transparent auction, and provide carrots -- not sticks -- to those currently holding spectrum licenses to free it up for commercial use.

"Right now we are the world's leading economy when it comes to wireless services," she said. "So let's build on this track record and start to move forward."

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