Wheeler gives shout-out to unlicensed spectrum, sharing

Noting that some 60 percent of licensed traffic is carried by unlicensed Wi-Fi--and referring to the fact that wireless operators at one time were Wi-Fi haters--FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he thinks the industry and regulatory world are going through an evolutionary process where the outcome has to be recognition that spectrum is something that has to be shared.

Tom Wheeler FCC Chairman

Wheeler

"The technology is helping us work our way through," he said at an event titled "Maximizing the benefits of broadband" at the Brookings Institution. "I'm a big believer in the future of sharing a limited resource."

There was a time when the thinking around spectrum was "it's mine, you can't touch it," but it's clear that due to the increase in demand for spectrum, "that [mindset] has to change, and sharing has to be an important part of it." Sharing is considered in pretty much every spectrum-related proceeding the FCC takes up nowadays, he said.

One of the things that he believes will come out of the incentive auction, due to take place next year, is increased channel sharing among broadcasters. "I think sharing is both a licensed and an unlicensed kind of activity and opens up opportunities in both," he told moderator Blair Levin, who served as chief of staff to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt from December 1993 through October 1997.

Wheeler suggested perhaps the FCC's most tangible role in growing broadband is to allocate and make available both the licensed and unlicensed spectrum necessary for competitive wireless broadband. While auctions for licensed spectrum are well-known for growing government coffers, making available spectrum for unlicensed use draws less public attention, "but as the remarkable success of Wi-Fi demonstrates, it literally is an indispensable element in the provision of broadband today," he said in prepared remarks.

He also talked about the benefits of the network's evolution from hardware to software, moving from a world dominated by hardware to one that is moving from an SIP world to an API world. "The result will unleash innovation in both the network and in applications," he said.

While in the old days it was necessary to add a physical circuit if you wanted to increase capacity, today it often is only a matter of adding computing power. Moving to a software-defined networking (SDN) model with virtualized components means that network operating expenses decrease, he added, noting that Verizon (NYSE: VZ) has said that the replacement of central office physical switching systems with software reduces its real estate costs by up to 80 percent.

"What used to require floors and floors of switches can now be done by a few racks of computers in a fraction of the space. And the same holds true of energy costs," he said. "Powering a few computers can save up to 60 percent on energy costs as compared to powering endless switches."

The effects of software-based networks are also good for consumers and competitors, he said, because they enable LECs to become more fulsome competitors to cable operators' dominant position in high-speed broadband.

For more:
- see the webcast
- see FierceTelecom's take

Related articles:
FCC gets grief from broadcasters over incentive auction rules
FCC votes to adopt new 3.5 GHz spectrum sharing plan for 'Innovation Band'
AT&T gets even more software-defined with SDS
FCC's Rosenworcel pushes for more spectrum for Wi-Fi, unlicensed use
AT&T: 75% of network will be software-driven by 2020

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