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Randall Stephenson: Spectrum and the Wireless Revolution By RANDALL STEPHENSON

The latest mobile devices give us the power to summon maps in distant cities, watch the news under a shady tree, or adjust our home thermostats from the airport lounge. This power at our fingertips is provided by major advances in our networks and increasingly powerful smartphones and tablets. But it equally depends on an unseen scarce resource: the radio waves, or spectrum, that transmit mobile data.

The demand for mobile data is now roughly doubling every year. Smartphones use 30 times more data than the cellphones they replaced. Meanwhile, the supply of spectrum supporting mobile devices has remained the same since 2008.

That means we’re in a race against time. The demand for spectrum will exceed supply by 2013, according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates. If that happens, the speed of the mobile revolution will slow down. Prices, download times and consumer frustration will all increase. And at a societal level we risk jeopardizing the future of our nation’s vital mobile Internet infrastructure, which is generating jobs and investment on a scale well beyond the first Internet boom of the 1990s.

Congress recently approved the FCC’s plans to auction spectrum held by TV broadcasters, an important, long-term step in the right direction. But it will take six to eight years to put that spectrum to use. Our country and our consumers can’t wait that long. We need to work together to find immediate solutions.

Some people believe that new technology—such as smaller, more sophisticated antennas and wider deployment of Wi-Fi—can solve our near-term spectrum shortage. These network innovations can help, and at AT&T we’re evaluating or investing in all of them. But they are not enough to solve wireless capacity problems—not when nearly half the American adult population owns a smartphone and data usage continues to explode. For example, AT&T’s 30,000 Wi-Fi hotspot network is the largest provided by any U.S. wireless carrier, but it offloads a mere 1% of all the mobile data traffic we carry.

If we are to meet our government’s expressed goal of providing high-speed wireless services to 98% of all Americans by 2016, we need to better align national policies with national priorities.

Three things need to happen:

• Require spectrum holders to put the airwaves to work. Many spectrum holders are speculators seeking an investment gain, with no intent to build a mobile network. We should discourage speculation and do more to ensure that spectrum goes to companies with the experience and means to put it to work. If a buyer hasn’t used the spectrum within a reasonable time period—which could vary depending on the spectrum’s technical properties or use restrictions—they would either have to put it up for sale, lease it or find a partner who can build it out.

It’s encouraging to see that in recent actions the FCC has required much more robust build schedules. This sends a strong signal to the industry that those holding spectrum must be prepared to put it to full and effective use, and serves to discourage speculators from buying up spectrum and keeping it dormant for years. Mobile device usage is growing too fast and spectrum is too precious to keep it on the shelf.

• Quickly get spectrum where consumers need it most. Large amounts of spectrum actually sit unused in the marketplace today. It’s held by companies that are not using it but would be willing to sell their stakes if they were certain the transaction would be approved in short order. A buyer could put compatible spectrum to work in as little as 60 days. Here, too, we’ve recently seen some encouraging signs that the FCC recognizes the importance of expedited spectrum sale reviews. Consumers and businesses who depend on their mobile devices every waking hour will benefit if speed continues to be a priority.

• Establish a national model for the local approval process that’s required when wireless carriers need to build new mobile infrastructure. The process needs to balance community concerns with the significant public benefit of adding new antennas and improving wireless coverage in local markets. Building our nation’s railroads and interstate highway system was made easier because Congress declared their construction a national priority and provided the policy framework to build them quickly. Our wireless infrastructure is every bit as critical to economic expansion.

Billions of dollars of investment in spectrum deployment will lead to tens of thousands of jobs. It will also multiply the many innovations and high-tech jobs we see today in the development of mobile Internet applications. But when the industry is unable to obtain and deploy spectrum efficiently, we miss the opportunity to create good jobs—and consumers pay the price. That’s already happening as nearly all wireless providers have dropped unlimited data plans, raised prices, and slowed the speeds of the heaviest users.

It’s worth remembering that in 2006 European companies led the wireless world, set the standards and generated innovation. The center of gravity shifted to the U.S. when the iPhone debuted on AT&T’s network in 2007. That propelled our nation into the lead, spurred billions of dollars in investment, and gave birth to the mobile Internet industry and the devices, apps and services that have changed the way we live and work.

To continue this robust pace of innovation—to support the next generation of Apples, Googles and Facebooks—our nation must put precious spectrum to work.

Mr. Stephenson is chairman and CEO of AT&T.