Privacy, mobile broadband top tech priorities for FTC, FCC

Chairs of FTC and FCC look ahead to a year that will see continued inquiries into tech firms' data collection practices and an ambitious effort to build out mobile broadband capacity.

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Ramirez readily admits the considerable potential for big data and IoT applications to achieve social and economic benefits -- a view she believes is shared by many consumers -- but cautions companies to be more forthright in explaining what types of data they collect and how the information is used and shared, citing a Pew study that documented widespread confusion about firms' data practices. A good rule of thumb, she says, is to limit the collection of data (and the duration it is held) to the bare minimum necessary for a specific business objective.

"I think consumers are willing to share information -- I think many are, if they can be assured what the information is going to be used for," Ramirez says. "I think transparency is absolutely key, but even before you get to transparency, I think companies need to make sure that they don't collect information that they truly don't need, because there is this push to just gather more and more information without really thinking through whether it's needed, and I think that exposes companies to risk."

Mobile broadband in sight

Meanwhile, across town at the FCC, officials are gearing up for what Chairman Wheeler anticipates will be a historic transfer of spectrum from TV broadcasters to mobile carriers to build out the network capacity needed to support the surge in wireless traffic propelled in part by IoT devices and applications.

[ Related: FAQ: The FCC’s upcoming broadcast-TV spectrum auction ]

Wheeler was describing an upcoming auction whereby broadcasters will be invited to turn over their airwave licenses in exchange for new slivers of spectrum, with the reclaimed parcels to be converted to mobile broadband use.

"For the first time in the world, we're going to do a simultaneous purchasing of spectrum, rebanding of spectrum and re-auctioning it," Wheeler says. "I think it is safe to say that you are going to see a spectrum extravaganza."

Through that proceeding, which is set to begin in late March, the FCC aims to dramatically increase the amount of spectrum available for wireless broadband networks, as well as allocating some for unlicensed uses -- what Wheeler refers to as the "innovation band" that gave rise to now-ubiquitous technologies like Wi-Fi.

Wheeler cites strong interest among the broadcast community in the voluntary incentive auction, both from small, local operators and large corporate players, and projects that there will be sizable spectrum transfers in every major city.

But even as broadcasters and wireless carriers both see opportunities in the auction, Wheeler highlights the technical challenge that the complex transfer of airwaves will entail, and stresses the importance of getting the proceeding right, given that spectrum is a finite resource.

"On the other side, this is the last time that we sell the sand on the beach. Because this is beachfront spectrum," Wheeler says. "Remember what Mark Twain said: 'I put all my money in real estate because I understand they ain't making it no more.' Well, the 21st century reality to that is spectrum."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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