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

[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.