How Politics Stalls Wireless Innovation

The Federal Communications Commission received a homework assignment in 2009—and an extra $13 million for school supplies. Congress ordered the agency to write a “National Broadband Plan” to stimulate the economy. The report, issued in March 2010, focused on opening up dormant radio spectrum for new uses. Citing the tsunami of mobile data usage, the study set a goal: The FCC should set free another 300 megahertz of prime bandwidth, more than used by Verizon and AT&T combined, for wireless broadband by 2015. That move would juice competition, unleash innovation and expand networks coast-to-coast.

With time, the FCC’s program to move television band frequencies into mobile phone and data markets was scaled back and the timeline stretched out. Another big chunk of spectrum slated for mobile was undone. This continues a long, sad saga depriving the U.S. economy of the bandwidth to accommodate new technologies.

The story also involves satellite phone licenses in the FCC’s L Band, frequencies prime for cellular services but largely walled off for satellite links. Companies like Globalstar and TerreStar went bust operating these satellite networks. The most sensational failure, Iridium, was created by Motorola using technology from the Reagan era. The company spent $6.5 billion in the nine months following its 1998 launch. It seemed the only ones benefitting from this quarantine of airwaves were bankruptcy lawyers.

In 2004 the FCC moved to relax L-Band rules, permitting deployment of a terrestrial mobile network. Satellite calls would continue, but few were being made, and sharing frequencies with cellular devices made eminent sense. By 2010, L-Band licensee LightSquared was ready to build a state-of-the-art 4G network, and the FCC announced that the 40 MHz bandwidth…

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