Taking stock of the nation's airwaves

When you're walking around town chatting on your cellphone, or sitting in a cafe surfing the Web over Wi-Fi, do you ever wonder how wireless signals travel through the airwaves around you? Most of us probably don't give it much thought -- and yet use of these airwaves is precisely what makes many of our modern communications systems possible.

Radio spectrum is a natural resource, something that here in the U.S. is owned by all of us as American citizens. But which entities are operating in our nation's public airwaves, and where? Are these resources actually being used efficiently and effectively, or is a sizable portion of useful spectrum simply lying fallow?

We cannot conclusively answer these critical questions today, because our government has not taken and published a full inventory of spectrum ownership and use in the United States. Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) have introduced a bill in Congress that seeks to do just that. The Radio Spectrum Inventory Act calls on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to take a full inventory of our nation's spectrum resources between the 300 MHz and 3.5 GHz bands.

The Kerry/Snowe effort to take full stock of our nation's airwaves is a positive development. Often lost in the debate over how best to put our spectrum to use is the fact that these airwaves belong to the American public, not to any corporation or other entity. But without a clear idea exactly whether and how these airwaves are being used, it is difficult to have an informed conversation about the best way to allocate and use spectrum efficiently for the needs of the American people.

In the past decade, Wi-Fi and other innovative uses of our public airwaves have revolutionized wireless communications and triggered great economic and technological growth. Last year's white spaces decision paved the way for better and faster broadband Internet connections. More efficient use of spectrum holds potential for even greater gains. Developing and publishing a detailed inventory of our nation's airwaves would be the first step towards achieving this critically important goal.