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Who’s Really Playing the Spectrum Game

Last Wednesday, Chris testified before the House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation panel titled, “Avoiding the Spectrum Crunch: Growing the Wireless Economy Through Innovation.”

The day before the hearing, a reporter from the New York Times wrote a story that questioned whether there really is a spectrum crunch, questioning whether carriers were “playing a game” in calling for additional spectrum. But what the reporter failed to address were two very fundamental questions.

  1. If there is a viable solution allowing the industry to address the “hockey stick” growth it is experiencing in terms of usage, users and uses, that is more cost efficient and effective than spending billions of dollars that our members have bid for spectrum in previous auctions, wouldn’t our carriers use it?
  2. If the spectrum crisis is fabricated, then is there a worldwide conspiracy to perpetuate it? Because around the globe, other countries have moved or are moving to make additional spectrum available for commercial use. So either everyone’s in on it, or - and this is much, much more likely - the whole world is going mobile and other countries are seeing the same demands as the U.S. Take a look at the flag chart below and you’ll see that when you compare U.S. users and usage, we lead the pack in a variety of meaningful metrics. Yet when you look at how much spectrum we have available and what’s in the pipeline, we are behind. And that’s the point.

Mid-Year 2011 Spectrum Flag Chart

Despite these facts, some people continue to deny that there is a need for additional spectrum. Maybe they feel threatened by our push, or they have a “solution” to sell, or they are in that tiny and dwindling minority that’s yet to go mobile. Whatever their reasons, I hope they’ll take a look at a recent blog post from ITIF’s Senior Research Fellow Richard Bennett. It’s a must read piece in which Bennett takes a look at the NYT story and explains point-by-point how ludicrous it is to think that the spectrum crunch is a conspiracy.

As Bennett explains, if there was a cheaper solution that would perform in any spectrum bands, “Any such company would rule the market for smart phone service in short order…. The reason this hasn’t happened is that it’s simply not possible with the technology we have today. No matter how much signal processing you can do in a mobile phone, there are real limits to the number of bits per second that a radio frequency can carry. Some of these limits are directly related to battery life, and some are related to the ability of digital and analog systems to work together to impress information on a radio wave. The communications industry has made steady progress toward improving radio efficiency for a hundred years, as Cooper points out, but the constraints are very real.”

At CTIA, we spend a lot of time thinking, talking and blogging about spectrum. That’s not because things like efficiency and infrastructure deployment are unimportant. In fact, we know that they’re both critical. But efficiency gains alone won’t keep us ahead of the demand curve, and tower deployment and cell-splitting, no matter how quickly companies build, won’t either. It’s not “playing a game” to say that spectrum has to be part of the mix.

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