Time for a New Spectrum Plan

The spectrum in this country is a mess. And this is not necessarily a complaint against the FCC because much of the mess was not foreseeable. But the FCC has contributed at least some to the mess and if we are going to be able to march into the future we need to start from scratch and come up with a new plan.

Why is this needed? It’s from the sheer volume of devices and uses that we see coming for wireless spectrum. The spectrum that the wireless carriers are using today is already inadequate for the data that they are selling to customers. The cellular companies are only making it because a large percentage of the wireless data is being handed off to WiFi today. But what happens when Wifi gets too busy or if there are just too many devices?

As of early 2013 there were over half a billion internet connected devices in the US. This is something that ISPs can count, so we know that is fairly accurate. And the number of devices being connected is growing really quickly. We are not device nuts in my house and our usage is pretty normal. And we have a PC, a laptop, a tablet, a reader and two cell phones connected to wireless. And I am contemplating adding the TV and putting in a new burglar alarm system which would easily double our devices overnight.

A huge number of devices are counting on WiFi to work adequately to handle everything that is needed. But we are headed for a time when WiFi is going to be higher power and capable of carrying a lot more data, and with that comes the risk that the WiFi waves will get saturated in urban and suburban environments. If every home has a gigabit router running full blast a lot of the bandwidth is going to get cancelled out by interference.

What everybody seems to forget, and which has already been seen in the past with other public spectrum, is that every frequency has physical limits. And our giant conversion to the Internet of Things will come to a screeching halt if we ask more of the existing spectrum than it can physically handle.

So let’s jump back to the FCC and the way it has handled spectrum. Nobody saw the upcoming boom in wireless data two decades ago. Three decades ago the smartest experts in the country were still predicting that cell phones would be a market failure. But for the last decade we have known what was coming – and the use is wireless devices is coming faster than anybody expected, due in part to the success of smartphones. But we are on the edge of the Internet of Things needing gigantic bandwidth which will make cell phone data usage look tiny.

One thing the FCC has done that hurts the way we use the data is to chop almost every usable spectrum into a number of small channels. There are advantages to this in that different users can grab different discrete channels without interfering with other users, but the downside to small channels is that any given channel doesn’t carry much data. So one thing we need is some usable spectrum with broader channels.

The other way we can get out of the spectrum pinch is to reallocate more spectrum to wireless data and then let devices roam over a large range of spectrum. With software defined radios we now have chips that are capable of using a wide variety of spectrum and can change on the fly. So a smart way to move into the future is to widen the spectrum available to our wireless devices. If one spectrum is busy in a given local area the radios can find something else that will work.

Anybody who has ever visited a football stadium knows what it’s like when spectrum gets full. Practically nobody can get a connection and everybody is frustrated. If we are not careful, every downtown and suburban housing area is going to look like a stadium in terms of frequency usage, and nobody is going to be happy. We need to fix the spectrum mess and have a plan for a transition before we get to that condition. And it’s going to be here a lot sooner than anybody hopes.

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