Spectrum: The looming question for wireless innovation

The big challenge for FCC concerning wireless innovation is how to free up bands of spectrum

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Federal Communications Commission is the cross between the wireless industry and federal, state and local governments. When it comes to creating new technological opportunities for industries – health care, small business, municipal governments and the like – the biggest issue is spectrum.

A panel at the CTIA Wireless conference at the Orange Country Convention Center here discussed how wireless technology is changing the fabric of society and the opportunities it brings. Dean Brenner, vice president of government affairs at Qualcomm, noted that there are billions of mobile devices deployed in the world and providing just basic functionality to the population can change the fabric of society.

“We have the largest communications platform in the history of the world,” Brenner said.

The panel touched on a variety of topics but one particular topic keeps coming up in the wireless discussion – health care. Qualcomm has partnered with the National Institutes of Health to create a mobile health summer institute, and various initiatives are being undertaken to transform the entire health care industry with mobile technology.


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Mobile health (mHealth as the industry calls it) is the move toward providing hospitals and health care institutions not just with fancy new gadgets but changing the way practitioners go about their jobs. That could be with smarter devices such as tablet PCs or smart phones, but also machine-to-machine technologies such as heart monitors that report to a personal digital assistant and alerts patients and doctors to potential problems before a medical emergency.

“This is still a new industry, I think we are still digesting the ramifications of this on our kids and grandkids,” said panelist Jim Greenwell, CEO of BilltoMobile.

Yet, it all comes down to spectrum. The panelists -- Brenner, Greenwell and Barbara Baffer, vice president of public affairs and regulations at Ericsson – all ceded to Julius Knapp, chief of the office of engineering and technology of the FCC, on the topic. As it stands, the FCC is the arbiter of any of this technological innovation because the commission holds all the spectrum cards.

“What we are working on is providing the spectrum that these technologies and services need to grow and to move forward with creative ways of doing that. Ideas like spectrum auctions, dynamic spectrum access and secondary markets,” Knapp said. “That is where our focus has been."

The challenge for the FCC is deployment and dispersal. The Obama administration outlined a plan earlier this year to auction spectrum and use the proceeds to build infrastructure and create a national emergency network (as well as cut the deficit). The telecommunications companies are hungry for spectrum and there are billions of dollars awaiting the next spectrum auction of the 700-megahertz bandwidth later this year. Yet, it is complicated waters for the commission as there are many sides playing against each other. The telecommunications companies bicker with one another, the CTIA advocates spectrum releases and various groups, such as emergency first responders, have a say in how spectrum is allocated.

How does the FCC navigate it all so that technologies such as mHealth flourish and the national infrastructure is upgraded to provide the majority people with mobile broadband access? It is not an easy question.

“By developing policies that are win-win-win for everybody,” Knapp said. “Spectrum decisions historically have been difficult and challenging and we've worked our way through them before and we will do it again.”

The panel touched on other topics outside of and health, such as in-app mobile payments, carrier billing and near field communications (NFC). Yet, the dominant theme behind any new technological innovation, mHealth or local government or consumer sector technology, starts and ends with the spectrum question – who gets it, how will it be developed and who pays for it?

See the video below of the panel discussion innovations and spectrum use.

Order of speakers -- Brennen, Baffer, Knapp.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.

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