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CHAPTER I - Introduction

As the capacity, speed, propagation characteristics and availability of wireless broadband services expand, consumers are increasingly using wireless broadband as a substitute for wired broadband. For many services, the substitutability of wireless broadband for wired broadband is causing the two networks to converge in architecture and function. For example:

  • The further fiber moves towards the customer, the more wireless capabilities are available in cellular networks.
  • As wireless offers more bandwidth, it can deliver video and other functions previously thought to require broadband pipes.
  • As Wi-Fi mesh networks become more robust, they may substitute for cellular communications for many functions.

The questions then arise:

  • To what extent are wireless offerings substitutable for wireline services, and vice versa?
  • And what spectrum policies would best foster the goals of a robust, reliable and effective communications system in the United States?

In November of 2013 a collection of telecommunications experts gathered for the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Spectrum Policy (AIRS) to discuss how spectrum policy could solve challenges to bring broadband to rural Americans, improve public services and incentivize innovation through competition.

The Roundtable began with a focus on the characteristics of both wired and wireless architecture. This dialogue framed the vision of the rest of the conference by establishing common goals of the overall communications network—including robustness, reliability and effective delivery. Other topics that set the precedent for policy discussion included competing broadband technologies and the trends toward convergence of wired and wireless technologies; and the challenges that convergence is creating with regards to public goods, competition and rural communications.

The Roundtable participants then examined how convergence would affect the transformation of the public switched telephone network (PSTN), public goods and reliability. Specifically, what components, if any, of the wired network were required by public policy as necessary components of public goods? What are the specific challenges that substituting wireless for wired broadband access may create for the “social contract” that has evolved between carriers and consumers?

Finally, the participants focused on substitution and competition. How should spectrum policy be used to generate greater consumer choice for communications services? It is crucial to craft a balanced policy that optimizes network output capabilities with consumer choice.

This report synthesizes these discussions and attempts to provide recommendations on spectrum policy for the wired network.

Although there were several recommendations offered to address the challenges of substitution, there was not uniform agreement surrounding any given solutions. In some instances, there was not even broad consensus as to the true nature of the underlying challenge. As a result of these disagreements, attendance at the meeting does not imply that a given participant agrees with this report.

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