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For Better Mobile Broadband, the U.S. Needs More Spectrum

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[qi:gigaom_icon_4G] When it comes to broadband, we in the U.S. want more, more, more. But when it comes to wireless, we’re limited by the amount of spectrum available to us. The spectrum is a measure of dedicated (in the case of licensed spectrum) or undedicated (in the case of bands like 5 GHz used for Wi-Fi)  radio waves over which a service provider can send packets of data. Think of each megahertz of spectrum as a highway lane for wireless data. Only so much data can travel in a lane, so more spectrum means more wireless services and capacity.

I talked last week to Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA, a trade group that represents the wireless industry, about the issue of spectrum allocation. He thinks the need to get spectrum into the pipeline is reaching a crisis point. “In essence, there’s a perfect storm of devices, apps and consumer usage patterns,” he explained. “When you look at where carriers are and the need for spectrum, and then you pause and look at what spectrum is in the pipeline, we are significantly concerned that we are going to fall behind other parts of the world.”

A 2009 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes that the spectrum currently assigned for commercial use in the U.S. is 409.5 MHz, more than what’s allocated for such use in any of the other top 10 OECD countries. However, the U.S. ranks second when it comes to the number of people served by each MHz, at just 660,073. Mexico is the most efficient user of spectrum, providing service to 661,666 people per MHz, while Germany ranks third, at 350,819 people.

The CTIA isn’t the only entity concerned about the use of spectrum. House and a Senate bills were filed earlier this year that aim to track what spectrum might be available for use for mobile broadband. The International Telecommunications Union estimates that the U.S. needs to have 800 MHz available for mobile voice and data by 2010. Guttman-McCabe notes that it took about 10 years to get the 700 MHz spectrum auctioned off from the time it was identified. That spectrum is the basis for the upcoming fourth-generation long term evolution wireless networks from Verizon and AT&T. He says that we currently have just 50 Mhz in the pipeline for future use.

So while there’s debate among folks about what spectrum should be licensed and what should be unlicensed, and questions over whether new spectrum should go to the incumbents, there’s notable agreement over the need to get more highway lanes built for mobile broadband.

15 Responses to “For Better Mobile Broadband, the U.S. Needs More Spectrum”

  1. The need for more spectrum is a serious issue facing network operators. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that the U.S. needs to have 800 MHz available by 2010 – therefore, having just 50 MHz in the current pipeline is a major concern. With mobile data traffic growth accelerating at its current rate, operators need to address network congestion challenges now. Specifically, they need to improve network efficiency and capacity, manage changing traffic loads and ensure network scalability. By proactively addressing these requirements with commercially available optimization and traffic management technology, operators can control the effects of continued traffic growth within the footprint of their existing installations and cost-effectively scale ahead of data usage trends. This will also enable carriers to deliver a compelling user experience and thereby drive continued mobile data adoption – which will be most welcome if and when additional spectrum becomes available.

    • Jesse Kopelman

      Spectrum is the only thing Clearwire has with any resale value, as of yet. Even there, I think Sprint still owns their share of the spectrum — just letting Clearwire us it as part of their partnership. If a 3rd Party were to buy Clearwire, Sprint would get its spectrum back.

  2. Jesse Kopelman

    More spectrum would be good. What would be better is forcing incumbents to use the spectrum they already have more efficiently. This is something incumbents (and their trade group the CTIA) are very much against. Look what happened with the 700MHz D Block auction. The dirt cheap reserve price wasn’t met, because, unlike any other auctioned spectrum, this block actually came with aggressive build-out requirements. What I read the CTIA as saying is, “give us more spectrum so our members can sit on it for 5-10 years, like they did with every other license they ever won.”

    Another important issue is the huge disconnect between how spectrum is used/required in rural vs. urban areas. It’s funny that the FCC had a better handle on this in the pre-PCS days with MSA and RSA geographic aggregations. I’m sure the move to different aggregations over time has been solely about getting higher auction revenues, serving the public be damned. If we are not going to impose universal service requirements on carriers, and it seems unlikely we will, we should consider going to a system of non-exclusive licensing for rural areas.