Next Wave Redux

September 01, 2011

Wireless Spectrum for Mobile Data

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2011 issue of Next Gen Mobility

Spectrum politics is big news in the wireless community. In the U.S., the short-term outlook is grim, as AT&T and Verizon (News - Alert) corner prime spectrum and Congress discusses auctioning the hard won, license-exempt TV white spaces.

Luckily, even without meaningful reform, there’s hope for coming decades as technology is changing the ground rules in ways that few understand.

The FCC’s (News - Alert) June 2011 competition report shows that AT&T and Verizon control the majority of the 700- and 800-mHz mobile spectrum. They also control the landline networks, meaning they pay less than other carriers for backhaul. And they control handset markets through consumer contracts and scale. 

Further, by all measures, the U.S. mobile oligopoly is shrinking towards a duopoly. Despite this, there is strong political pressure to further consolidate spectrum ownership and sell more spectrum to the budding monopolists even while significant swaths (perhaps as much as a third) of their current spectrum sits idle. What’s worse, new mobile spectrum may come at the expense of TV white spaces.

For decades, more innovation and more products have been based on the few available slivers of unlicensed spectrum than on any other bands, even mobile. So the prospect of license-exempt access to TV white spaces has been hailed as a big step for U.S. innovation. Unfortunately, Congress has peculiar budgeting rules. If the Congressional Budget Office estimates a future spectrum auction could bring $X and Congress mandates the sale of that spectrum within the next four years, then that possible future money can be spent today. It’s free money immediately. If the auctions don’t happen or don’t bring in what was estimated, that’s a hole in a future budget – not our problem. Thus spectrum policy is caught in a bind with little hope of meaningful reform.

Indeed, the next five years will likely see more consolidation and higher prices, but the prospect for 10 years and beyond is much better. A wireless technology revolution has begun, which will eventually re-define what is prime spectrum. Until now, signals below 1gHz have carried farther, but that’s a technology limit not having anything to do with the physics of radio waves. Emerging technologies promise to make 3-10gHz spectrum as useful for many applications as spectrum below 1gHz (look up MIMO and beam steering for technology details). When technology eventually catches up with physics, 3-10gHz will become prime.

Luckily, we already have four license-exempt bands available above 5gHz, totaling more than 450mHz of spectrum, and additional bands may become available under TV-white-spaces-like rules. So long term, there is a path for a technology solution, independent of Congress, the FCC and the mobile phone oligopoly.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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Rich Tehrani,
Since 1982 Rich has led TMC© in many capacities. Rich Tehrani is an IP Communications industry expert, visionary, author and columnist. He founded INTERNET TELEPHONY® magazine...Read More >>>
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Partner and Community Developer, Crossfire Media
Today as a partner at Crossfire Media, Carl is developing programs that bring to light an understanding of the issues required for delivering broadband wireless Internet...Read More >>>
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Erik oversees the editorial content and direction for all of TMC. Erik has contributed literally thousands of features during his 5-year tenure, with a focus...Read More >>>
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Paula Bernier,
CTO & Executive Technology Editor
om is executive technology editor for TMC® Labs, the industry’s most-well known and respected testing lab, and ...Read More >>>