The Spectrum Famine

Mitchell Lazarus writes in the October 2010 issue of IEEE Spectrum on The Great Radio Spectrum Famine — the challenges of getting more spectrum for mobile broadband. He notes the importance of incentives that can lead users to optimize or reduce spectrum usage on their own. There is some great historical information as well. It is another informative and thought-provoking article from Mr. Lazarus, who can also be found from time to time on the CommLawBlog.

A comment of mine was posted along with the article today.  I copy my comment below:

Thank you Mitchell for sharing your insights and providing an important historical perspective. I had almost forgotten about the assignment by industry in two-way. Another scary tale if I run out of ghost stories this Halloween.

I, too, have followed the decline in terrestrial TV viewing for years. Today, though, I see more people “cutting the cord” and dropping cable or satellite. They use a combination of internet and over-the-air viewing. I wonder if this downward trend is ending.

In the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, the local wireless internet service provider is now offering a service called “free TV.” You pay them $300 to put an antenna on your house and hook it up to your TV. Twenty channels with no monthly fee. They market this as an innovation, and it sells.

We see these large projections for future mobile broadband demand; a lot of that is video. Mobile operators have been working about 10 years to engineer and make a business case for broadcasting. Technically, they can make it work but it’s not a business yet, anywhere in the world, in part because of the system capacity tied up in providing the service.

In the hierarchy of mobile needs, I’d say voice is most basic closely followed by text. Video is nice, but less essential to my life. I’ll use it on my unlimited data plan. If a per-byte tiered-pricing plan is put in place, I may pass.  I’ll download it at home and move it to my phone. Or wait until I’m near a Wi-Fi hotspot.

I do believe in the next few years we’ll see some significant technologies that allow for more efficient spectrum use. Source coding technology will be one of those areas. There will also be better networking protocols for heterogeneous radio networks what will allow for more seamless handover among 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi, and even Ethernet; this will make it easier for operators to move off crowded mobile broadband spectrum whenever possible. Applications can be more tightly coded.

None of the above is meant to deter the search for more spectrum for mobile broadband. I like the FCC’s plan for the voluntary transfer, using financial incentives, of TV allocations to mobile broadband. As you suggest, incentives help. I like the suggestion involving a non-profit group. In addition, I wonder if spectrum can be made more like property; when people own something, then tend to take care of it and maximize its value.

One comment here suggests femtocells as part of the solution. Femtocells are a good fix to fill in coverage holes. From what I have seen so far, however, they won’t be much help with the spectrum crunch. Interference issues preclude ubiquitous placement.