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Will we soon run out of wireless spectrum?

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Jan. 24, 2010

There are now many people in the wireless industry that are very concerned that we will soon run out of wireless spectrum. The faster that mobile users adopt new MIDs (mobile Internet devices) and services, the faster we will run out of available frequencies in the wireless spectrum that can handle all of this increased traffic.

It is largely predicted by some experts that mobile services will continue to grow at anywhere from 15 to 20 percent per year for the next 5 years. That is simply a lot of growth and to some, maybe these people have good reasons to be concerned.

Mobile communications, including 3G and now 4G information services, have seen remarkable expansion since 2004, as millions of users buy smartphones and use them not only to replace traditional landline service but as a principal device for Internet access. And this is happening a lot faster than what most people think.

The issue is that wireless spectrum is in fact very limited. We can always lay more fiber-optic cable and, in the future, whatever technology exceeds the capacity of fiber to carry bits, but there is only so much usable radio spectrum over which those same bits can be communicated wirelessly. And that is exactly where the whole problem lies.

Several proposals to address this problem were discussed a few weeks ago at the annual CES Show. These include reclaiming underutilized or unused spectrum as, for example, the FCC has done in the transition to digital television.

But some of the spectrum broadcasters were using for analog signals has already been auctioned off for new wireless services, so there's really not that much left.

The White House and the FCC both believe that over the next five years, unless solutions are found, the demand for wireless services will largely outstrip the very limited supply of wireless spectrum. From the standpoint of the National Broadband Plan and the hopes for an information-based economic recovery, running out of spectrum could prove catastrophic.

Wireless broadband is expected to play a major role in the push for universal access to broadband Internet services, and this, as you may very well expect, will further compound the problem even more.

Today however, there is some talk of taking back more of the broadcasters' remaining allocation of spectrum, and of reallocating spectrum currently held by the federal government and, in particular, the U.S. military.

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In certain cases, spectrum trades among those who currently control them may lead to more efficient uses of the most valuable frequencies.

Other solutions are of a more technical nature, including software and hardware that make it possible to share wireless frequencies or dynamically reroute signals along unused frequencies. New technologies may also make it possible to effectively use frequencies that today are not suitable for carrying radio signals.

Michael Calabrese, v.p. and director of the New America Foundation's Wireless Future Program, believes that there is a great deal of unused and underutilized wireless spectrum that can be tapped in the future.

He pointed out that even in cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., less than twenty percent of the available spectrum is actually being utilized most of the time. That's a big waste of spectrum right off the bat.

The FCC is now calling for the development of a comprehensive spectrum map to identify the best opportunities to free up underutilized or misallocated spectrum. The creation of an updated map is likely to be a major recommendation of the National Broadband Plan.

Whatever is done, the time to act is now. The FCC understands that as much as the largest wireless carriers.

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Source: The FCC.

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