Losing contact in modern society — physically, digitally — is a new kind of scary. We’ve seen this before: five years ago, Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters and winds downed communications networks for one of every four people on the Eastern Seaboard. During the recovery, the motto became “build back better.” After all, after the worst happens, there’s an opportunity to rethink our infrastructure to be more resilient and work better for our communities.
The logic is simple, but the implementation has been difficult, in part because we have not yet internalized these lessons in our overall approach to managing our critical infrastructure. As we reconnect, policymakers should remember that our communities need more than business as usual — they need forward-thinking regulators and innovators with eyes on an invisible resource: radio spectrum.
As our world has become more dependent on connectivity, we have all come to rely on spectrum. From lighting to satellites to thermostats and from cars to smartphones to medical devices, licensed and unlicensed spectrum is what powers all of those connections. The more we depend on spectrum, the more important it is to allocate enough of it to keep up with rising demand. But spectrum is both a critical resource and a limited one, so we have to maximize what’s available creatively.
Technology has made leaps and bounds here, especially since Sandy. There are technologies to sense spectrum use and dynamic databases that can assign frequencies and can keep devices from interfering with one another to wring every last hertz from the available spectrum. It is now possible to do much more with the same amount of our limited spectrum resources. And technologists and policymakers have shown some real commitments to making these advancements work for our networks.
Consider the hopefully named Citizens Broadband Radio Service, or CBRS. Back in 2015, the FCC decided that a band that had primarily been used for coastal radar could also be shared with mobile broadband users. They instituted an innovative, brand-new approach to encourage new services and new providers to enter into and make use of this previously underused spectrum. CBRS works by letting the spectrum be shared with different priorities given to traffic based on use.
This could be huge for spectrum innovation — and the scale and resiliency of our communications networks. With CBRS, you don’t have to be one of the major wireless carriers to be able to afford spectrum. Almost anyone, from an event organizer to a rural, independent wireless carrier to a hospital or school campus can afford a license under this system.
But we’re in danger of slipping back into old modes of thinking. The incumbent mobile carriers are pushing to get exclusive access to this spectrum because it’s a low-cost way to add to their massive spectrum holdings. This is short-sighted. And it’s bad for building back better: this spectrum grab would remove incentives for these major players to efficiently use the spectrum they already have while also totally inhibiting innovative wireless uses. From rural broadband providers to companies like General Electric, from Google to commercial property managers, NASCAR, cable companies and startups, the call to the nation’s regulators has been: let us show you what we can do with this spectrum.
This is not a blue-sky endeavor: wireless innovation has and does lead to new jobs, new companies, and more resilient communications infrastructure. In the wake of Sandy, a handful of us decided to figure out a way to make regular phones create their own peer-to-peer mobile network, and since we did not have the funds to buy spectrum, we had to figure out how to best use the very limited public spectrum available. With access to just a tiny bit of shared spectrum and some gumption, our team is proof you can make a big difference. As I write this, millions of people in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are still struggling to connect. But solutions like goTenna Mesh —powerful little antennas you pair to your phone — have let first responders and civilians create an entirely peer-to-peer mesh network to GPS coordinates and texts via UHF radio waves. This is much further than a walkie-talkie would be able to broadcast and it leverages other devices nearby to power a network that grows with each node that joins it. Imagine how much of an impact we (and others) could make if we had access to more spectrum set aside for innovative, life-altering uses like this.
The debate over CBRS cannot be the canary in the coal mine for our wireless future. We need real spectrum innovation to meet our growing demands across so many sectors. The massive influx of people and “things” that need to be connected to each other is apparent. And recent natural disasters in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Houston, Mexico City, and Northern California make clear that for communications networks to be resilient, they need to include new decentralized layers of connectivity. If spectrum is only available to the major wireless carriers, there won’t be room to build ‘better’ alternative systems.
Making more spectrum available under flexible conditions benefits everyone — even the incumbents. It’s in their best interest to leave the CBRS space open for real innovation. Other players in the wireless industry are proposing to use this spectrum inside buildings to make smartphones and other devices work better and connect seamlessly to the carriers’ networks. New, innovative ways to use spectrum are also an opportunity for incumbents to learn about new technological possibilities. Exploring new-and-improved spectrum uses enables the entire telecommunications field to move forward. That’s something we should encourage, not stifle.
We have an opportunity to “build back better,” but we need policymakers to buy in. They have an opportunity right now to keep CBRS open for business and innovation. Let’s hope they take it.
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