Every so often the licensing of spectrum -- the radio frequencies that carry wireless communications -- becomes a battle between the "haves" and "have nots." As the report "Mobile Broadband Spectrum: A Vital Resource for the American Economy" notes, spectrum is a finite resource that is in high demand in the mobile industry. Spectrum licensed to U.S. wireless carriers generates more than $400 billion annually in economic activity, according to a report issued today by the Brattle Group and prepared for CTIA-The Wireless Association.
In the U.S., spectrum is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. When the FCC decides to make more spectrum available for commercial use, companies often end up in a bidding war over this valuable resource. Without more spectrum, the report suggests, the growth of the mobile industry -- including the Internet of Things (IoT) could be limited.
The $400 billion figure includes direct and indirect economic impact generated by the mobile carriers, but excludes billions more in economic benefits produced by mobile health, mobile education, the app economy and other sectors that use licensed spectrum as a platform for their own business models, according to the report.
"Licensed spectrum is vital to the mobile industry and to our nation's economy," said Meredith Attwell Baker, President and CEO of CTIA, in a press release. "As this report shows, policymakers need to continue to look for hundreds of MHz of additional licensed spectrum so this economic growth is sustained and America remains the global leader in this rapidly changing sector. Licensed spectrum serves as the industry's backbone for network operators to boost speeds and capacity, device manufacturers to develop new products and apps and content developers to create new offerings."
The Brattle Group report also shows that in large part because the fiercely competitive mobile sector drives down prices, Americans value their mobile service between $5-$10 trillion more than they actually pay to use it.
The positive effect of licensed spectrum also extends to job creation: for every one person employed in the wireless industry, an additional 6.5 people get jobs, according to the report. That figure is substantially higher than the comparable multiplier for the U.S. manufacturing sector and higher than any other single segment of the telecommunications sector. As a result of the multiplier effect, the wireless industry supported over 1.3 million jobs in 2013.
"Licensed spectrum is a finite resource that we must deploy efficiently to maximize benefits for all Americans. It fuels other sectors, and its value goes well beyond those measured here," said Coleman Bazelon, Principal, The Brattle Group. "Of the 645.5 MHz of licensed spectrum for commercial mobile use, 98.5 MHz came since the FCC released its National Broadband Plan in 2010 that stated the wireless industry needed 500 MHz by 2020 to meet consumer demands."
The report indicates that the more than $400 billion in annual economic activity is based on 2013 data showing $172 billion in direct spending on U.S. wireless services and an additional $228 billion in indirect and induced impacts. Additionally, the wireless industry paid over $40 billion in federal, state and local taxes in 2013.
The Brattle Group report focuses largely on the direct economic boost that the licensed wireless industry provides, not on the additional benefits that mobile provides other sectors. Industries such as mobile entertainment, the app economy and mHealth market were not included, but would add billions more to the total economic impact.
For the wireless sector to continue its long economic and social winning streak, however, it will need access to more licensed radio spectrum, the report concludes. Demand for wireless services, and the spectrum that enables it, continues to grow unabated. These growing demands mean that, for the wireless industry to continue to serve as an engine for economic growth and social engagement, policymakers must focus on the future.