FCC to Open Up Skies to Wireless-Industry Bidders

SAN MATEO (04/03/2000) - When I was a young college student with entrepreneurial aspirations, I was constantly on the lookout for something new to sell. I would mentally sort through every industry, looking for the obvious commodity that hadn't been discovered yet. But it seemed everything was already for sale, even things that you would think would be free: the land we live on, the food we eat, the water we drink.

But there was one opportunity that still remained, and it was right in front of us all the time: the air we breathe. Needless to say, I failed to come up with a compelling marketing strategy that would create sufficient demand. But times have changed, and the air we breathe is poised to become one of the most sought after commodities of all time.

I'm talking about the impending battle for the airwaves that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission foreshadowed recently when it revealed its intention to open up the spectrum market to bidders of every ilk. Bowing to growing concerns among wireless-industry leaders about a shortage of spectrum, the FCC has embarked on plans to create a trading community for unused bands of the wireless spectrum, in effect creating a new commodity out of thin air.

This means that companies will be able to buy and sell surplus spectrum as supply and demand arise, rather than the way it works today where certain companies have unlimited use of specific spectrums. This should help to alleviate some of the problems wireless phone and pager users have been experiencing around the country due to spectrum congestion.

But it should also be good for a number of other reasons. An open market means more consumer choice and more competition. That, in turn, should lead to better prices and service as we let the corporate giants fight it out for our business. It also means that bottlenecks that could impair the growth of the wireless market will be less likely to occur.

The FCC has already started making moves to improve the situation, which some analysts characterize as a severe spectrum shortage. This spring the agency will auction off a sliver of spectrum currently used by police and fire departments. Although the repercussions of this move have some troubling safety implications, who is the FCC to stand in the way of a growing market? I just hope they don't commission fire trucks in order to supplement a shortage of Greyhound buses anytime soon.

However, the question in my mind is this: With the rate of growth in the wireless business exceeding everyone's expectations, how is it that we will be able to accommodate the wireless needs of everyone in this country? If, as it sounds, the mysterious spectrum of communications frequencies is finite, won't it just run out of room some day? And if we are already bumping up against the limits of this medium at such an early stage in the market's development, could the ceiling be close at hand?

Just thinking about this stuff hurts my brain, and I think I might need some kind of advanced degree just to begin to understand the intricacies of this kind of technology. But I hope someone is thinking about it, because I rather enjoy being able to place calls with my cell phone, even if it only works half the time.

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