When working with innovative companies, my rule of thumb is “find it, fix it, fund it.” We can apply a similar methodology to spectrum, especially when it comes to realizing a future of new mobile-based opportunities and next generation networks. One of America’s most valuable resources is its radio spectrum – the invisible airwaves that not only power our smartphones and tablets today, but also autonomous vehicles and countless other “connected” innovations of tomorrow. Spectrum should be fully utilized so innovative startups will flourish and inventors can build new products and services, accelerating our country to full employment.   

Two-thirds of the most valuable spectrum frequencies are held by federal agencies, received in free grants from the government, much of which lies fallow as their activities comprise a fraction of the frequencies allocated. Needless to say, identifying spectrum that could either be auctioned or shared is an important task if we hope to power the revolutionary Internet of Things (IoT). It is also estimated to generate $19 trillion in market value by 2024.

Key committees in Congress regularly examine spectrum policy and other related technology policies, but the power to change spectrum policy also lies in the hands of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioners Mike O’Reilly and Mignon Clyburn.

While spectrum sharing will be important, one additional path to enhancing and expanding access to spectrum is to put existing commercial licenses to better use. Keeping an innovative and open mindset when it comes to building new and innovative networks will be key if we hope to fully harness the power of a world where all things are connected. For too long the government has kept the brakes on spectrum; we need to push the pedal of acceleration. Here’s how to find the spectrum, fix the policies that regulate it and solidify a path forward on sharing spectrum in order to power the future of innovation.

Find It

There is broad bipartisan support for a new sharing model for managing our scarce spectrum resources. The more efficiently spectrum can be used, the more commercial participants can innovate and consumers and entrepreneurs will benefit. For example, there was a call for 500 MHz of government spectrum to be identified and shared by 2020. While this was a laudable goal, little progress has been made to realize it.

One example of a new spectrum sharing opportunity that doesn’t require long term government action is to combine current spectrum licenses to form more seamless connectivity. For example, there is a proposal before the FCC now that suggests combining radio waves meant for both satellite and ground-based communications to create more robust networks. While this proposal is still under review by the FCC, combining licenses offers operators an immediate opportunity to more spectrum and provides a faster path to higher bandwidth and expanded coverage.

Fix It

Given the deference on spectrum accorded to federal agencies over decades, few challenge their holdings despite the trillion dollars in potential government revenue left on the sidelines. Beyond significant financial benefits, repurposing more spectrum would also help connect more Americans to the mobile web. Furthermore, we will continually see applications developed that demand huge bandwidth and faster speeds that extend beyond basic consumer need and into the industrial world. When solutions could be applied to the “industrial Internet of Things,” including first responder networks, manufacturing efficiency and improved sustainability, more should be done to connect them with necessary resources to power these innovations.

Beyond traditional auctions of government held spectrum, sharing proposals of all shapes and sizes are a classic “win-win” opportunity in which the incumbent operator can continue to operate at full capacity, while consumers and the economy will benefit from the next generation mobile infrastructure. Approval of proposals that will set the precedent for a new model that can be deployed on other underutilized spectrum bands. Chairman Pai should approve these sorts of proposals as part of his work to enhance connectivity, while simultaneously preparing for future innovations that demand more advanced networks.  

Share It

It is possible that the new administration will more actively encourage a “use it or lose it” approach to spectrum for agencies holding and not using their spectrum. Congress and the FCC should encourage the administration to do so and explore policies where unused spectrum be subject to a standard sharing agreement. The demand for spectrum will not subside as we stare down the barrel of an IoT-intensive world ahead, and the move will undoubtedly create new technologies for entrepreneurs and consumers, including industrial IoT advances that could increase efficiencies of supply chains which are currently estimated to save $2.7 trillion over the next decade.

However, in the meantime, any proposal before the FCC, particularly sharing on underutilized spectrum bands, could be the catalyst for moving other shared spectrum practices forward. Given all we stand to gain from better spectrum policy, innovators should be allowed to seek necessary solutions to obstacles to connecting consumers and businesses to these technologies.


Henry Wong is a Silicon Valley investor, telecommunications engineer, and Stanford University mentor in entrepreneurship.