The first wireless communication took place in 1895, when Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent a morse code message that traveled over a kilometer of airwaves. Today, the idea of communicating through morse code or even a standard radio seems old fashioned. Wireless communication, however, is more common than ever. 97% of the United States population owns a cell phone, and the fast speeds of 5G internet make communication a seamless experience.

The unsung hero of both Marconi’s morse code message and a facetime call to a friend across the country is spectrum. Without spectrum, wireless communication as we know it would be impossible.

Spectrum is the frequency that allows for wireless communication and connection through invisible airwaves. While spectrum refers to a range of frequencies, certain wavelengths are best suited for specific technologies.

It is helpful to think of spectrum as a buffet and the devices using it as diners. Different dishes represent different ranges of frequencies, and the diners (devices) choose the ones best matched to their needs, with some offering faster speeds or longer distances traveled.

Cell phones, wifi networks, bluetooth devices, and other communication systems all rely on radio spectrum waves for their wireless performance. These waves carry signals back and forth between devices and service providers. The shorter the wavelength, the faster the speed of transmission.


Spectrum is both essential and finite: there is limited space on the wavelengths. If too many devices try to use a frequency at once, it becomes congested. Because of this, internet service providers and other wireless communication companies must bid and negotiate for space on the radio spectrum. The short wavelengths that enable higher speeds have the least amount of space, and there is intense competition surrounding who gets to use them.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration work in tandem to regulate and manage spectrum. Some is reserved for public use, while the remaining spectrum is auctioned off or leased for private use by companies.

With the widespread proliferation of 5G internet and an increased demand for high speed telecommunication, the need for accessible spectrum has increased. Policymakers and industry professionals have called for reform and innovation to auction and leasing practices.

In November of last year, the Biden Administration directed federal agencies to take action in a memorandum concerning Modernizing United States Spectrum Policy and Establishing a National Spectrum Strategy. It directed federal agencies to evaluate the state of radio frequency spectrum and develop solutions to optimize available bands and find more.

The memorandum is an opportunity for the FCC and NTIA to promote more efficient spectrum use. The agencies can do this by encouraging innovators in the wireless industry instead of favoring older, more antiquated approaches to band distribution. Additionally, the agencies ought to clarify the rules and regulations around spectrum use so that excessive and burdensome bureaucracy does not make the system opaque.

The astounding speeds of 5G internet, the lifesaving capabilities of wireless telecommunication, and the essential nature of GPS navigation are all made possible through spectrum. Spectrum holds profound potential for the economy and technology of the United States and progress forward will depend upon the efficient maximization of this limited and precious resource.