Is There a Mobile Spectrum Crisis? That is a Very Good Question!

By Peter Bernstein April 18, 2012

You have to love Twitter. One can sit and watch the world go by and just when you were feeling good about things something will catch you attention and raise your hackles. Such is the case with an article that appeared in my media outlet of preference in the morning, the New York Times.   Yesterday I read with some interest the article, “Carriers Warn of Crisis in Mobile Spectrum.” While a bit simplistic for those of us who were around for the start of the U.S. cellular industry it set forth in lay terms the case as to why certain members of the industry (including the father of cellular himself, Martin Cooper), believe the carriers are crying wolf.   He and other quoted in the article have a point, to a point, but I think they are looking at the trees and can’t see the forest. Let me explain and likely add to the flurry of tweets.

The naysayers’ case

After acknowledging the fact that we are about to be hit with a tsunami of mobile traffic in terms of the number of devices and the bit-hungry applications they will run, the case that says the carriers are over-exaggerating rests on three postulations put forth in the article:

1.       Cooper contends that “Every two and a half years, every spectrum crisis has gotten solved, and that’s going to keep happening…We already know today what the solutions are for the next 50 years.”

2.       David P. Reed, an original architects of the Internet is cited as saying:

a.       Electromagnetic spectrum is not finite

b.      Newer technologies for transmitting and receiving signals do not interfere with one another which means separating the frequency bands would not be required so everybody could share spectrum and not run out

c.       Carriers won’t use new technologies for sharing spectrum because they wish to protect their monopolies.

Faulty logic

Let me start at the end. With all due deference to David Reed, radio spectrum is a finite resource. We cannot create more of it. What we can do, and to Martin Cooper’s point have been relatively good at doing is using it more efficiently. In addition, all spectrum is not created equally. 

I will not get into the technical details but different parts of the radio spectrum are best for communications of different types. In lay terms, what is “clean” spectrum for short distance communications may not work well for longer distance communications. Plus, in the U.S., for example, there has to be a delicate balance between public uses of public resources and private uses. This is why much of our spectrum is set aside for use by public safety agencies and the military, why we went through the movement to digital television a few years back, etc. Certain bands are best for cellular, and it is the job of regulators to balance all interests while promoting innovation that is in the public good when spectrum is used by public agencies as well as private interests serving commercial needs.

It should also be noted that for over 50 years spread-spectrum technologies have been around that allow for frequency sharing. Owners of Qualcom stock in particular have been huge beneficiaries of that fact. 

All of this does not change the realities that commercial interests need commerce to survive and are facing huge hurdles based on problems caused by them (unlimited data usage plans), excessive use by a few heavy users which do in fact degrade the experience of the rest of us, and that nasty little problem of generating revenues to accommodate all of those smart devices and bit-munching apps. If the idea is that sharing technologies will increase availability then those who share should pay those who own a fee so that the infrastructure can be built out. Cooper may be right that the technology to “solve” the crisis exists or is on the way, but sharing the financial load must also be part of the equation. This is not about frequency sharing it is about cost causers being cost bearers as well.

Finally, I would like to refer everyone to an article I happened to author back in March called, “Tekelec and Diameter - Mobile Plumbing is Sexy.” Putting aside for the moment the debate as to whether there really is or is not a spectrum shortage, we are facing around the world a signaling issue of gigantic proportions. All of the plans to migrate to LTE (which uses spectrum more efficiently), offload cellular traffic to Wi-Fi and deploy small cells near big users does not address the explosion in signaling traffic that is being generated by all those smart devices and their apps. 

As anyone who owns a smartphone knows, the only way to save on battery life is to turn off synchronization and all of those apps which are constantly pinging the network for updates, etc. The facts are that the owners of the infrastructure are the ones who own and must have interoperability of their networks based on Diameter signaling. This must be factored into all of the talk about spectrum scarcity because it once again gets to the questions of the value of the spectrum, the value of the license, should there be licenses, and who is going to be responsible for creating what and how do they get compensated.

Looking at the challenges operators face today on a non-holistic basis, i.e., without consideration of everything involved in the efficient and effective use of spectrum and how the needs of various parties are balanced is dangerous. In theory that is why the U.S. has NTIA and the FCC in charge of making the tough calls. There may or may not be a spectrum crisis. I happen to be in the camp that says the operators could use more but based on a long-term view of how it will be used, by whom, for what purpose and under what commercial models. That said, there clearly is a looming wireless carrier network viability and vitality crisis and that is one everyone needs to take very seriously.

Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli
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