FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski outlined a four-part strategy for U.S. wireless communications on Wednesday, focusing on additional radio spectrum, obstacles to 4G (fourth-generation) deployments, an open Internet and competition.
Genachowski's keynote address at the CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment conference in San Diego covered much ground that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has already started to address in a variety of initiatives since he took office in late June. But it articulated Genachowski's aims in the mobile arena, which he called central to the agency's mission.
He placed the need for additional spectrum at the top of his mobile agenda, echoing recent calls from the industry for more frequencies to meet exploding demand for mobile data.
"I believe the biggest threat to the future of mobile in America is the looming spectrum crisis," Genachowski said. Although the FCC has authorized a threefold increase in commercial spectrum in recent years, many observers expect a 30-fold increase in traffic, he said. A shortage of spectrum could hurt consumers and the country, he said.
"The less spectrum available for mobile broadband, the more service will cost and the longer it will take to make 4G ubiquitous," Genachowski said.
Also repeating recommendations from the industry, Genachowski said spectrum will have to be reallocated from other uses to mobile broadband. In a letter to the FCC last week, the CTIA asked the agency to make an additional 800 MHz of spectrum available for mobile broadband over the next six years.
Asked about the letter during a press conference following his keynote, Genachowski said his agency is taking input from many entities.
"Exactly how much spectrum we'll need to close the gap, we don't know yet, and that will be part of the ongoing processes that we'll run," Genachowski said.
In addition to reallocating frequencies, the FCC will promote more efficient use of existing spectrum, in terms of both devices and policy, he said. But the challenge of opening up new spectrum remains.
"It takes a long time to find and reallocate spectrum, and there are no easy pickings on the spectrum chart," Genachowski said.
The FCC will also act to break down barriers to 4G deployment, particularly the placement of towers. The agency will soon put forth a proposal to cut through red tape to speed up the process while taking into consideration the concerns of local authorities, Genachowski said.
A third priority is ensuring an open Internet, and a fourth is supporting competition, he said. The chairman said he recognizes that the mobile industry may require a different approach from the wired world in regulating net neutrality and network management, and said the agency will act to ensure greater transparency and participation in the process.
Following Genachowski on the keynote stage, Ralph de la Vega, the head of AT&T's mobile business, laid out statistics about the mobile industry's growth and challenges. Using statistics from his own company, he emphasized the need for mobile operators to be able to manage their networks despite calls for a more freewheeling mobile Internet.
Data usage on AT&T's mobile network has grown 4,932 percent over the past three years, said de la Vega, who is president and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets. The top 3 percent of AT&T's smartphone users -- who make up less than 1 percent of its total postpaid subscriber base -- account for 40 percent of the carrier's smartphone data use, de la Vega said. Those users are consuming 13 times as much data as the average smartphone user.
"If we don't find a way to keep them from crowding out others, we're going to have a very significant issue," de la Vega said. As have other carriers, he argued against imposing further regulation in the pursuit of net neutrality.
Asked later about the problem de la Vega raised, Genachowski acknowledged mobile operators have unique network management issues and said any net neutrality regulations would have to allow for "reasonable" network management practices.
"These are hard challenges. It doesn't obviate the need to have fair rules of the road that preserve the open Internet," Genachowski said.
The CTIA conference continues through Friday.