By Sandie Haverlah, Texas Consumer Association
If you have teenagers or grandchildren who are glued to their phones around the clock, it probably won't surprise you to learn that the amount of wireless data traffic - from web browsing, streaming videos, Tweeting, texting and checking Facebook - is skyrocketing. What you may not know is that all of those wireless texts, tweets and posts travel on invisible radio waves known as spectrum. This "spectrum" or wireless capacity is a finite resource, meaning we can use it all up. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says we are less than a year from running out of wireless capacity. Even if you're not a smartphone-toting teenager, running out of wireless spectrum matters to you.
If you've ever been to a big sporting event and couldn't get a call out on your cell phone, you know what it feels like to hit a wireless capacity wall. If we run out of spectrum, it will feel like we're in that giant crowd every day. Dropped calls, spotty coverage and slow wireless Internet access will become commonplace.
Everyone with mobile service depends on this invisible wireless infrastructure, whether you have a traditional cell phone that just makes calls or a tablet device like an iPad that can stream entire movies on-the-go. Running out of spectrum would be painful for everyone. It could even be dangerous if wireless networks become so overloaded that calling 911 from a mobile device became unreliable.
We arrived at this wireless "capacity crunch" because mobile data traffic doubled in the past four years, according to Cisco; it is expected to double every year for the next five years, according to Ericsson. Millions of people use smart phones and tablets, which use a lot of wireless capacity, to watch TV, shop online, post mobile videos and download movies. This surge of traffic on our wireless networks is quickly congesting our spectrum highways. Just imagine what rush hour in Dallas or Houston would look like if the traffic started doubling every year.
If highway traffic was growing that fast, the Texas Department of Transportation might take bids for building more lanes on the highway. But even if companies are ready to build more roads, they need real estate to build them. Think of spectrum like wireless real estate. Wireless providers are ready to expand their networks to make way for all of this wireless traffic, but there's less and less wireless real estate - or spectrum - available. You can't "build" more spectrum, just like you can't conjure more real estate. You can just rearrange how it's being used.
Spectrum gridlock initially sounds grim, but viable solutions to make more efficient use of existing spectrum are out there. There is actually a lot of spectrum available. The U.S. government holds the key to releasing more spectrum and decides how it's being used.
Congress took an important step to free up more spectrum for wireless use when a bipartisan majority approved auctions for huge blocks of spectrum. This spectrum could be purchased through competitive bidding by wireless companies who can use it deploy better, faster wireless service across Texas and beyond.
But technology moves faster than government. Federal officials say the first auction may happen in two years, which isn't soon enough since today's wireless data demand is about to exceed our current spectrum supply. Even the FCC says we will have hit the wireless capacity wall by then. Waiting two years to free up more wireless real estate means we won't have the wireless networks we need until it's too late.
We need those spectrum auctions soon so that we can feel confident that simple phone calls will go through and that wireless Internet service is reliable. If wireless providers have ideas for better ways to use the spectrum they have, government should get out of the way and let them go for it. Having enough wireless capacity matters to everyone and the government needs to act now to get the process moving on all fronts to free up the wireless capacity we need.
Sandie Haverlah is president of the Texas Consumer Association.
 FCC spectrum deficit: FCC Staff Technical Paper, Mobile Broadband: The Benefits of Additional Spectrum 2 (rel. Oct. 21, 2010), http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-302324A1.pdf