Feature Article

October 24, 2012

Is There a Spectrum Crisis? Fight Erupts

It remains a matter of some debate whether or not there’s no spectrum crisis facing the U.S. mobile industry, either now or in the future. A common line of thinking is that concerns over future spectrum are attempts to create a phony crisis so mobile service providers can grab more spectrum.

A recent post that accused the CTIA of “hiding” or “ignoring” consumption trends got a heated response from the organization.

Tim Farrar, an analyst with Telecom, Media and Finance Associates, argued there was a dramatic slowdown in wireless traffic growth during the first half of 2012, according to CTIA data.

“Of course, CTIA doesn’t want anyone to realize that, because it is significantly at variance with CTIA’s narrative of an impending ‘spectrum crunch’ into which so much lobbying effort has been invested,” Farrar said.

The CTIA press release only quotes total wireless data traffic within the U.S. during the previous 12 months up to June 2012, for a total of 1.16 trillion megabytes, but doesn’t give statistics for data traffic in each individual six-month period, he argues.

That information, however, can be calculated from previous statements, Farrar says, which show total traffic in the first six months of 2012 was 635 billion MB, compared to 525 billion MB in the final six months of 2011.

“This represents growth of just 21 percent, a dramatic slowdown from the 54 percent growth in total traffic seen between the first and second half of 2011,” Farrar said. “Even more remarkably, on a per device basis (based on the CTIA’s total number of smartphones, tablets, laptops and modems, of which 131M were in use at the end of June), the first half of 2012 saw an increase of merely three percent in average wireless data traffic per cell phone-network connected device, compared to 29 percent growth between the first and second half of 2011 (and 20-plus percent in prior periods).

CTIA does not agree with the criticisms. “The fact of the matter is that American’s data usage did increase, whether you look at twelve-month or six-month increments,” countered Dr. Robert Roche, head of CTIA’s Research Department.

In a blog post, he notes that “in the press release and on our website, we did change how we reported the MB of data, but only to make it parallel to how we reported the other traffic measures, not as six-month but as twelve-month volumes.”

There was no intent to conceal anything, he says. The CTIA’s complete survey results are made available twice a year in the form of its Wireless Industry Indices report, which provides both six-month and 12-month analysis of the complete range of the CTIA’s survey results.

“In fact, if you look at the year-to-year growth from June 2010’s six-month volume (161 billion MB) to June 2011 (341 billion MB) to June 2012 (633 billion MB), you see a usage curve that is shooting up dramatically,” said Roche.

But that isn’t the key issue, for anybody. The bigger point is that the issue of how much spectrum might be needed is contested. Some, like Farrar, think there is not a looming problem.

But is not the prevailing view of most telecommunications regulators or service providers, who globally believe more spectrum is needed.

To be sure, rates of consumption growth might be happening, but that is hardly surprising. Rates of growth, for bandwidth or other products, tend to slow as the user base grows. And people and providers are rational. They figure out ways to use products more effectively over time, in ways that provide value at reasonable cost.

Offloading mobile data demand to fixed networks, especially when encouraged by service providers, is one such response to growing use of mobile bandwidth.

The debates aren’t going to end. But some might ask where the bigger danger lies – assuming there’s no need for more spectrum, and being dramatically wrong, or assuming there is a big need for bandwidth, and being dramatically wrong.

We haven’t seen the impact of the former, though we have seen the impact of the latter, in the big “Internet bubble.”

You can take your pick of dangers.

Edited by Braden Becker

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