June 14, 2012

Opinion: Running out of Wireless Spectrum

Lance Cpl. Bill Waterstreet
Desert Warrior Staff

There is a growing issue in American society that very few are aware of, and only recently did I hear of this very serious problem. We are running out of bandwidth.

Alone, that sounds insignificant, except to those who are extremely technically savvy and understand the implications of the problem. But before explaining what this problem truly means for us all, we must come to an understanding of bandwidth and what it does in our daily lives.

Bandwidth is the lifeblood of wireless communication. It is the system of roads down which all wireless information travels, like an information interstate system. More technically, bandwidth is the width of the range of frequencies that an electronic signal uses on a given transmission medium. It is the range of  waves that exist in the air which are capable of transmitting data.

All wireless communication, whether it be phone calls, television shows picked up by antennae, text messages, radio, internet browsing by smartphone or tablet, or home wireless internet connections, use bandwidth to send and receive information.

So it is easy to see how running out of bandwidth would affect commodities we are accustomed to having.

However, it is not as dire as it may seem. While this bandwidth shortage, also called the wireless spectrum crunch, will have consequences for some industries, existing television, radio, phone call, text or home internet network providers should not be meaningfully impacted. It is the smartphones, tablets and other new technologies, such as machine-to-machine communication and smart grids, which rely on large transfers of data wirelessly, which will be under the headsman’s ax.

This is because the amount of data transfer required by new technologies dwarfs that of previous generations. Mobile Future, a coalition of vendors and consumers, estimated in a March 2011 report that the average smartphone uses 24 times the data an older model cellular phone does, and the average tablet uses 120 times the data of each smartphone.

With the proliferation of mobile devices in our society capable of accessing the internet at anytime, and our ravenously growing demand for them, we are running out of roads to send our data down.

In the past this has been remedied by companies who provide the wireless services, such as AT&T and Verizon, studying usage and compensating for predicted demand. Sadly, data usage of smartphones and tablets doesn’t fall into this model, and cannot be predicted as easily. What can be predicted is that our wireless data usage will continue to rise exponentially. By 2015, consumer use of wireless applications and services will be almost 60 times today’s volume estimates the Yankee Group, a research firm.

This is extended to the point that, in 2011, when Credit Suisse conducted a survey, they found America’s networks operating at 80 percent capacity, with 36 percent of locations already facing capacity constraints.

So America is demanding too much data, what does this mean?

This means if nothing is done alleviate the problem, wireless data transfer will first slow, a little at first, then crawl, then nearly stop, making our expensive smartphones or tablets worthless. This will also greatly hamper innovation of new technologies as the world moves forward. Ever dream of being able to play your favorite video game, no matter the console, straight from your IPad, wherever you are, or have cars that talk to each other and drive themselves? These are things being developed, but they cannot work without bandwidth.

Luckily, things are being done to try to fix this problem. Wireless technologies have been one of the few industries to steadily grow over the last ten years, and powerful people have taken notice.

The Federal Communications Commission and President Obama’s administration have are working with Congress and private companies to redistribute the rights to bandwidth. The proposed plan will double the available space in the next 10 years, but that is simply not enough and is being accomplished too slowly.

Bandwidth is not like the Wild West anymore. No one can ride out and just seize a chunk for themselves. All the rights to usable space have already been parceled out. Bandwidth is now a commodity similar to land, there’s no more being created and it’s getting more valuable as time goes on.

Because no one could see this problem coming decades ago when bandwidth first began to be used, massive quantities of it were licensed away to television companies for pennies on the dollar, and large chunks are still held by the Department of Defense.  The wireless companies need more and other businesses are not keen to give up their resources, even if they aren’t using them.

Bandwidth no longer used for TV broadcasting and spectrum that exists in the white spaces between TV channels can be used to send wireless data without interfering with the dissemination of television programming.

The situation is similar to a man giving a neighbor a tract of land that’s relatively common and worthless and that neighbor then strikes oil on the land and begins extorting the rest of the community for the use of his oil. While not illegal, this act, like the actions of the television companies, is immoral.

Many television companies claim to be holding onto their bandwidth so firmly because streaming TV to tablets and smartphones is just over the horizon. This point is valid, but they are using this to hide their selfishness. If someone gives away a diamond, then realizes its value and wants it back, it’s in the recipient’s greedy human nature to hesitate.

The FCC and Congress are working to solve this dilemma with “incentive auctions” because one company selling bandwidth rights to another is not allowed. These auctions will payout money to both the government and the company losing the rights, money coming from the company gaining the rights. This opens up new capital in a fast growing industry, provides money to the previous owner of the capital, and brings much-needed revenue into our government, a win-win-win situation. However, this is taking longer than expected to pass through Congress and the FCC.

“If we don’t authorize incentive auctions, we’ll get swamped by an ocean of demand and risk losing the competitive advantage to lead the world in innovation,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Also, the spectrum being used by the Department of Defense is utilized for emergency services and defense purposes. Allocating too much away could cause more events like the failure of the communications end of emergency response during 9/11, and I’m sure everyone agrees faster phones and tablets aren’t worth possible problems with emergency services.

So reallocation of bandwidth is not as simple as it sounds and will only provide more cushion for the problem. More bandwidth will allow for more data transfer and an expansion of the industry, but we will eventually reach the ceiling of what our technology is capable of if nothing else changes.

Companies that need more bandwidth can also expand their infrastructure to make what they have more efficient, but again this will only raise the ceiling.

The true solution to this problem lies in the advancement of technology. Similar problems to this have come up in the past, though not of this magnitude, and have been resolved by technological advancement. Fortunately, technology is still in the race against the crunch. In Sept., 2011, engineers at Rice University revealed they had developed full duplex technology, which will let mobile devices send and receive data at the same time, thus doubling their bandwidth efficiency.

Hopefully, other technological innovations will follow, as these are the lasting solutions to this problem.

What does this mean for all of us, the common men who just want to watch YouTube on our phones?

This means, until solutions have been put in place, prices will rise. Look for data plans at wireless carriers to skyrocket in the next few years, and if this problem proceeds unhindered for long enough, smartphones, tablets and other new wireless innovations will only be affordable by the wealthy, and text messaging and phone calls will begin to be affected as well.

So what is the point of explaining all of this?

To educate and inspire. If we want innovation to continue, we must push for change. Write a Congressman or other elected representative and ask for pressure on this issue, both for the government to free up resources and to help push new innovation.

We can all do our own part as well. Free up the networks. Instead of watching that video on your phone, watch it on your computer when you get home. That little change over millions of people will keep prices down and possibilities up.

Richard Bennett, senior research fellow for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation(ITIF), said, “If we can’t get spectrum bandwidth for more mobile devices in the next five years, prices will rise, performance will suffer, and innovation will be impaired.”

Innovation is what this country was founded on, and it is what it has thrived on. I look forward to what brilliant Americans will come up with to fix this, and the breakthroughs that lie beyond.

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