Communications technologies rely on invisible electromagnetic waves, known as spectrum, to function. Radio, cellphones, Wi-Fi, and even garage door clickers need spectrum to work. Unfortunately, the range of electromagnetic waves that technology can use is limited, making spectrum an essential but finite resource. As our wireless world grows, finding ways to free up spectrum is increasingly important. 

Unfortunately, without thoughtful planning, sharing spectrum can create problems. When multiple technologies use the same spectrum frequency within close proximity to one another, they can cause interference, disrupting vital telecommunications services. This is why the Federal Communication Commission oversees spectrum to advance the public interest, allowing technologies to use spectrum on either a “licensed” (borrowed at auction by companies to limit interference) or “unlicensed” (freely available but without protection against interference) basis. 

Unlicensed spectrum supports critical technologies, including short-distance radios, Wi-Fi routers, and even baby monitors. Unlicensed spectrum also supports new technologies, many of which wouldn’t exist if their inventors were forced to pay for expensive licensed spectrum. American innovation runs on unlicensed spectrum.

Lack of competition in the telecommunications market makes matters worse, reducing the quality, affordability, and reliability of service. How the FCC administers a spectrum license can either encourage or inhibit competition. Policies that increase the costs of a license prevent new competitors from ever gaining access to the spectrum they need to enter the market, which raises prices for consumers while limiting provider choice.

Public Knowledge works to ensure the FCC manages spectrum in ways that benefit all Americans. We advocate for policies that open up more spectrum for unlicensed use. We carefully consider the consequences of how spectrum is managed and advocate for policies that will benefit the public by supporting policies that encourage competition and prevent the largest companies from hoarding spectrum at the public’s expense.