Is the U.S. 'Behind' Again?

By Gary Kim September 24, 2012

One should be skeptical at times about claims that a specific country is "falling behind" on some measure of communications intensity. Sometimes the issue is simply that the value of a particular innovation is not immediately grasped. Once the value proposition is clear, adoption seems to occur rapidly enough.

In recent years, it has been argued that the United States is behind in broadband adoption, either  fixed or mobile.  In earlier years, it has also been argued that the United States is “behind” Europe, for example, in mobile phone adoption

Similar concerns have been expressed about use of text messaging (short message service) or U.S. use of mobile multimedia or mobile payments, compared to Japan, for instance. 

That might apply, in some ways, to claims the United States "has quickly fallen behind the world" in  auctioning off spectrum that can be used to support wireless communications.

Additionally, it is argued that Germany and Spain have auctioned about 50 percent more spectrum for broadband than the United States has, and it is said that France has auctioned about 40 percent more spectrum, while Italy and Japan have auctioned 30 percent more spectrum.

"Specifically, the U.S. has auctioned about 410 MHz, Germany about 615 MHz, Spain about 600 MHz, France about 560 MHz, Italy roughly 510 MHz, Japan an estimated 500 MHz, and the United Kingdom preparing to auction about 600 MHz, Precursor principal Scott Cleland says. 

Some skeptics will argue that one would expect Cleland to take that view, as one virtually always will find Cleland taking positions that are "against" Google and "for" telcos. And there is little doubt that mobile service providers virtually always seem to be looking for more spectrum as they add more customers. 

The new reality is that each of those new customers are starting to consume network bandwidth at unprecedented rates, compared to past usage of narrowband voice and messaging apps. 

That isn't to deny that more spectrum will be needed, in most countries, as mobile broadband adoption increases. Nor are U.S. regulators unmindful of the need to clear unused former TV broadcast spectrum for mobile use. So the "auction gap," like many other past "gaps," will close over time. 

Furthermore, what isn't immediately so obvious is what other spectrum assets already exist that can be "re-purposed," as U.S. mobile service providers are decommissioning older 2G or iDEN spectrum for new use by fourth generation networks. 

And then there is spectrum Clearwire already has deemed surplus, the potential Dish Network, LightSquared and Nextwave spectrum, for example.

 Long term, most service providers will need more physical spectrum. What isn't so clear is that there really is a spectrum auction gap that means anything terribly important at the moment.

In other words, one can be skeptical about the U.S. market, U.S. consumers or U.S. mobile service providers being in a fundamental sense "behind" other regions or nations in the area of spectrum auctions, as it once was argued the U.S. market was behind in some other important area of communications or application usage.

It is entirely correct to note, as a historical matter, that U.S. consumers have adopted some important new innovations at a slower initial rate than users in some other regions and countries. The key point is that, once consumers understood the value proposition, and the innovations were seen to have high value, the gaps almost abruptly vanished.

That is going to be the case for spectrum auctions or spectrum availability over time, as well.

Edited by Allison Boccamazzo

Contributing Editor

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