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It is No Trick – There is a Spectrum Crisis

Yes, I’m the cybersecurity guy, but I’m also an engineer by trade, a Bell Labs alumnus and a patent holder who has worked on wireless for most of my career. Based on my education, training and technical experience in designing and deploying wireless technology for more than 25 years, and with the understanding of how the networks work and the anticipated wireless usage, I know more spectrum is needed.

If we do not meet the wireless industry’s need for spectrum, there will be a crisis in relatively short order.

Even though I’m the “newest” kid to the CTIA block, I find it baffling that some continue to question the spectrum crisis, especially as we see the penetration of smartphones and tablets escalate, the advent of machine-to-machine, not to mention cybersecurity solutions for consumers. How can one ignore the fact that smartphones have eclipsed personal computers?

There is no question that Americans are using their wireless devices more – from apps to over-the-top providers to surfing the Internet – all of this takes more spectrum! Other parts of the world such as Europe and Hong Kong - and organizations like the ITU (that called for 1,300 MHz by 2015 -  meaning the U.S. would need an additional 800 MHz of spectrum to meet the demand) - recognize the fact that more spectrum is needed as the global population of over 6 billion wireless users continues to consume more and more spectrum resources. Today, the U.S. leads the world in the deployment of 4G/LTE. Without more spectrum that leadership is put at risk, as are the economic and social benefits that we all enjoy from the wireless industry. Here are a few of those expert organizations' projections:

Then, when you take into consideration that it’s not just consumers using their devices, it’s also about other industries benefiting such as health care, education, transportation and utilities, it’s no wonder projections show a continued uphill climb. Imagine the bandwidth requirements to transmit healthcare images, for a “connected-classroom” in a rural town or urban traffic management systems – these all require more spectrum on top of what is already inadequate to keep pace with the connected society of the 21st Century.

But what about Wi-Fi? Yes, consumers are increasingly using Wi-Fi to offload their usage from carrier networks, which is extremely helpful in the spectrum crisis. Yet as Cisco's data shows, which adjusts for consumers offloading to Wi-Fi, there must be more spectrum to meet demands from consumers and businesses across the country. In the aggregate, consumer demand for wireless bandwidth continues to grow faster than what Wi-Fi and carriers' networks are adding. Wireless penetration is more than 100% of the population - meaning many of us have more than one wireless device - and this trend continues to grow in the US, as more people transition from feature phones to smartphones and/or tablets that consume more capacity and spectrum bandwidth.

But what about femtocell and other smaller spectrum splitting technology? Yes, another piece of the puzzle, but one can only slice spectrum so much before it becomes unusable. As wireless network planning and design engineers know, cell splitting has a practical limit, as does the deployment of femtocells when it comes to adding spectrum capacity. In most urban centers like New York, Chicago or L.A. the practical limit is looming very quickly.

But what about [fill in the blank technology]? Yes, there are a lot of entities who claim to be able to “solve” the looming spectrum crisis with some type of technology. However, it’s important to remember the following:

  1. The wireless carriers are a business. If there was a practical technology that would solve the spectrum crisis without making them pay BILLIONS at auction, trust me, they would absolutely use it. At the end of the day though, there aren’t enough band aid solutions; there has to be a big investment in spectrum at auction.
  2. Currently, there is NO practical technology that could handle the significant anticipated usage growth, except more spectrum. Again, there are small incremental changes that can be implemented (and are being used on networks across the country), but nothing replaces more spectrum.

Trust me, the carriers are deploying and using every single technology and “trick” they can to try to solve the looming spectrum crisis in the near-term, but nothing will solve the problem like more spectrum.

Claude Shannon proved that there are practical limits to how much bandwidth capacity is available from a limited amount of spectrum. One has to look no further than the father of information theory to realize that the solution is more spectrum.

18 Responses to “It is No Trick – There is a Spectrum Crisis” Leave a reply ›

  • avatar

    You seem to be rather confused about the Cisco data that you are citing to try and discredit WiFi as a major source of incremental capacity. Cisco's latest analysis (Feb 2012) assumes that in the US the proportion of handset/tablet mobile data traffic that will be offloaded to WiFi will drop from 49% of total traffic in 2011 to 46% in 2016 (see http://tmfassociates.com/...building-castles-in-the-air/). Yet the PCAST report notes that already one major US cellular operator is offloading more than 50% of its traffic, and most observers expect this to increase much further. A more realistic assumption, that 80%+ of traffic will be offloaded, would cut Cisco's traffic growth projections by more than half.

    With respect to your statement that "carriers are deploying and using every single technology and “trick” they can to try to solve the looming spectrum crisis in the near-term", the CTIA data shows that capex by US operators has not changed significantly in 2011 and 2012 and remains lower in absolute terms than in 2004 (see http://tmfassociates.com/...trum-crisis-or-capex-crisis/). Indeed just last week, Verizon noted that it plans to reduce its capex in the next few years - hardly the sign of an operator desperate to deploy "every single technology" it possibly can do.

    Finally, you mirepresent Shannon's law. That deals with capacity through a given channel, not the total capacity of a given amount of spectrum, once re-use is taken into account. Rather more relevant is Cooper's Law (http://www.arraycomm.com/technology/coopers-law) stating that wireless capacity doubles every 30 months (and has done for the last 100 years). As noted in the referenced article, of the million-fold improvement in wireless capacity over the last 45 years, only 25 times has come from more spectrum, and 1600 times has come from more re-use.

    • avatar

      I did not discredit Wi-Fi as a major source of incremental capacity, what I said was that demand is growing faster than the supply of capacity made through carrier deployed spectrum and Wi-Fi combined.

      An assumption that 80% of all traffic on all carriers’ networks being offloaded to WiFi in the US is unrealistic at this time and for quite some time into the future.

      While we can’t comment on the plans of an individual carrier, the fact that carriers adjust their capital expenses plans from year to year is hardly unusual and indeed "every single technology" and "trick" has to do with the fundamental capabilities and capacity improvements possible with available and practical technology rather than the absolute cost spent on the improvement. As we know from Moore’s Law and general market trends – technology provides more capacity at lower cost over time.

      To say that Shannon is not relevant to spectrum is to suggest that spectrum is not used to transmit information. One such example of its use is Shannon-Hartley, which is used to address the minimum possible Eb/No to achieve the maximum possible transmission capacity. Such calculations, as an example lead to the ability to evaluate spectrum capacity.

      On the topic of re-use, in the real world, it is common knowledge that there are practical limits as to how many base stations can be deployed in a given area, be they macro-cells or femtocells. Also, because so much reliance over the past 45 years was on re-use and other technology improvements (1600 compared to 25 as pointed out), the industry had no choice but to mortgage its future to compensate from a lack of additional spectrum.

      Consumer growth in demand has indeed placed a disproportionate burden on the available capacity made possible through re-use and technology - at this point it is time for more spectrum to address the looming crisis.

  • avatar

    Qualcomm is working on increasing mobile capacity 1000x in the next ten years. They call it the 1000x Challenge. One scenario they have is placing small cells in 9% of homes in a macrocell. In that case, capacity in that cell increases 500x. Doubling spectrum increases capacity 2x. Putting the two together increases capacity 1000x. It gives you an idea of the relative capacity increases that can be had by increasing spectrum versus increasing the number of small cells.

    Another advantage of small cells is that handset battery life is increased because reduced transmitter power is needed for the uplink to reach the closer small cell. Increasing capacity by just increasing spectrum does not decrease handset transmitter power.

    Finally, to the extent more spectrum is made available to mobile broadband, Qualcomm’s research suggests (work continues) that higher frequencies are better for small cells. The supposedly “beachfront” UHF frequencies propagate well, and their interference does too. Interference from higher frequencies does not propagate as far, which may make interference management for small cells easier.

    Regardless, I think spectrum remains one of the key components for increasing capacity, along with advanced network topology (small cells, Wi-Fi, heterogeneous networks) and advanced radio technology.

    • avatar

      Thanks for your response. I agree completely. The wireless industry continues to innovate and is recognized as the hallmark of efficiency and advanced technology. Without the types of innovations you mentioned, many of the future mHealth, mCommerce or mBanking scenarios may not happen. So to your point, spectrum is key since, for decades, the industry has leveraged technology and innovation to stay ahead of growth in consumer demand for mobility. We’re now at the point where more spectrum is critical to fuel the virtuous cycle of innovation and growth in the connected mobile society of the 21st century. Technical innovation and spectrum availability must work hand-in-hand; you cannot have one without the other – for very long.

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