Today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) begins the laborious process of making our mobile internet even faster and better. The government is buying underused TV airwaves and selling it to mobile carriers for billions of dollars. These radio waves—also known as spectrum—will shape mobile US connectivity as streaming video continues to swallow up bandwidth across the country and as we inch closer to 5G internet speeds.
This giant re-allocation of radio waves is being called the broadcast incentive auction by the FCC. In 2008, the FCC raised $19.1 billion in a similar auction, which created the groundwork for 4G LTE and led to AT&T and Verizon’s cellular dominance for the next several years. Just last year, the FCC raised a record-setting $45 billion from bidders and many expect this auction to raise even more money.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s start with the basics.
Spectrum is really just a fancy term for radio waves, a specific portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (hence the name). These wavelengths can stretch dozens of kilometers or can be measured in mere millimeters. Where light and color are part of the visual spectrum, invisible radio waves are what carry 4G signal and companies are aggressively fighting over these limited frequencies.
“Mark Twain had that great line about real estate, he said ‘I’m putting all my money in real estate because I understand they ain’t making it anymore,’” said Wheeler during last year’s CTIA keynote.
And that’s why mobile carriers are so interested in this auction: It deals explicitly with limited low-band waves, around 600 MHz. Because low-band can travel further and penetrate buildings easier than high-band alternatives—AT&T wants more.
But T-Mobile wants to stop that from happening, saying AT&T and Verizon already control three-fourths of low-band frequencies. This is actually one of the major reasons why T-Mobile is famously terrible at receiving signal inside buildings and has equally terrible coverage outside major cities. It’s high-band can’t penetrate walls or travel as far as the competition.
So imagine just this one drama as just a thread of a larger web of companies—including new players like Comcast, Charter, and Dish Network—wrestling over ways to deliver data more reliably.
Why should you care?
Freed up radio waves, purchased by cellular carriers, will improve coverage across the country and help shore up resources for the US’s growing appetite for online video.
“We hear this constantly that there’s a demand for wireless spectrum,” Charles Meisch, a spokesperson for the FCC told Gizmodo. “As capacity grows, types of applications that developers can come up with also change.”
For example, years ago apps like Periscope and even Netflix would be almost useless on low-speed 3G (or 2G) networks. Because of much faster 4G LTE, streaming apps are now much easier to use. Video takes up 50 percent of all US mobile data and will likely grow to 70 percent in 2021, which is when this rearranged spectrum will go into use. Because video requires more over-the-air bandwidth than other types of data, these bigger lanes will open up the possibility for applications we haven’t even thought of yet.
Aside from building a more reliable mobile network, this chunk of low-band, along with future high-band auctions in the years to come, will likely be the basis for blazing fast 5G speeds.
“I foresee lower-frequency bands playing a role in 5G,” said Tom Wheeler in a blog post. “In much the same way that 700 MHz paved the way for America’s world-leading deployment of 4G, so could 600 MHz accelerate U.S. deployment of 5G.”
5G is the next generation of wireless communication that will bolster our growing “smart” ecosystems, whether on highways or in our homes. This large swath of low-band coupled with data-carrying high band, going up to even 60GHz, could be an important part in the next generation of mobile.
What does this mean for the future?
Although US data speeds are often lampooned for being laughably slower than other Asian and European countries, the US was a pioneer in creating and adopting 4G and 4G LTE networks. The spectrum auction that starts today is the official beginning of the next generation of the invisible web that makes modern communication possible.
Sure. Download speeds and coverage will improve, but those are only short-term benefits. This low-band spectrum could be the bedrock that the US builds a “smarter society” and creates a better system that can handle the data burden of our increasingly connected lives.