Last week, the FCC released a white paper and conducted a summit that highlighted the looming spectrum crunch in the United States, based on the booming mobile wireless industry.
The numbers are staggering, with wireless data use expected to increase by 35 times in the next five years, and the FCC setting goals to unleash 300 MHz of spectrum in the next five years and 500 MHz of spectrum in the next 10 years for traditional licensed and unlicensed uses.

Of course, the entire premise of the FCC’s white paper is the fact that available spectrum is scarce. Yet, according to numerous government and industry reports, only a small percentage of spectrum actually is used at any given time. In other words, while the spectrum wall charts appear to be near capacity, a snapshot of the spectral landscape at any particular moment would reveal lots of unused spectrum.

The ability to identify these pockets of available airwaves and leverage them is at the heart of cognitive radios that are being developed for military communications. After all, when you’re in a hostile environment, there often is not time to conduct normal spectrum planning, and there are no enforceable rules against jamming in a battlefield environment.

If this cognitive technology achieves its promise, it could have significant value in domestic wireless communications, as well as military use. The ability for network gear and devices to dynamically shift their transmissions to open swaths of spectrum could fundamentally alter the manner in which radio airwaves are valued and spectrum policy should be considered.

Certainly dedicated spectrum likely will always exist for mission-critical communications utilized by public-safety and military personnel. In addition, certain enterprises may well opt to have their more important transmissions on licensed spectrum that gives them a level of control that is not available in unlicensed bands.

However, for many consumers, having a best-effort mobile data service may be more than enough to serve their needs. If cognitive capabilities can be developed cost effectively, it eventually could help relieve the spectrum crunch that appears inevitable today.

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