The announcement said that the agencies would begin examining the use of five bands of spectrum that altogether include 2,786 MHz of frequency. The examination will consider various spectrum management techniques and strategies for reducing interference. This includes spectrum in the lower 3 GHz band, the 7 GHz band, the 18 GHz band, and the 37 GHz band.
This was welcome news to the wireless industry that has yelled for years that it does not have enough spectrum to keep up with future demands. CTIA and WISPA, the lobbying arm for large and small wireless carriers, both praised the announcement.
While there is always a lot of hyperbole and exaggeration in the industry that told us five years ago that 5G was going to change our lives, the wireless industry is not wrong about this. It seems that when we release new spectrum to the world, it quickly gets gobbled up – at least in urban areas. The growth of cellular data usage has been clipping along at over 20% per year, and it doesn’t take too many years for the demand to catch up with and exceed capacity. The need for spectrum is expanding even faster due to the sudden proliferation of FWA cellular broadband.
However, the wireless industry could do a lot more with existing spectrum. One of the easiest ways to make current spectrum stretch further is to put small cell sites in neighborhoods to handle local demands. Five years ago, we were told that the big wireless carriers were going to be putting small cell sites on every block – but those investments never got made. Cities fretted loudly over the pending proliferation of small cell sites clogging urban vistas, but the flood of new cell sites never came.
There are critics of the new strategy because it relies on cooperation and coordination from the industry to find the best use of spectrum. That has grown more difficult over the last decade as the lobbyists for various wireless groups snipe and battle with each other over any plan to consider new spectrum. I’ve found that the most entertaining reading in the telecom industry is the pleadings at the FCC where various wireless groups call their opponents dirty, rotten scoundrels.
Some of that animosity followed this announcement. An AT&T executive was quoted as lauding the new spectrum policy but hoping that this would bring a new balance by giving more spectrum for mobile uses instead of unlicensed uses.
That raises a serious question. Is there a path that the NTIA and the FCC can take to somehow examine new uses of spectrum in an evidence-based process rather than an all-out lobbying battle? It’s hard to be hopeful about that in a world where industry lobbying groups exist for the sole purpose of pushing for their constituency over everybody else.
Spectrum policy is not easy. All of the spectrum bands being discussed by this announcement are already being used today, and opening spectrum to new uses means somehow finding a new spectrum home for existing users. There is no better example of this than the lower 3 GHz spectrum. This spectrum is ideal for cell phones and for the newly popular FWA fixed wireless. One of the biggest uses of this spectrum today is for military radar, and there are estimates that it could cost well in excess of $100 million dollars to migrate the military to other frequencies. Keeping the military and the carriers both happy while developing a commercial use for this spectrum is a huge and costly challenge.
You have to appreciate an attempt to look at spectrum issues in a way that will tamp down on the vehemence and animosity between various spectrum constituencies. And there is a good chance that nothing will come of the attempt – but we have to try. If the goal is to really find the best use of each spectrum band, then I don’t know if there is an alternative. In a perfect world, the NTIA and FCC will find a way to look at this rationally. If they do, I will miss reading the epic name-calling in FCC dockets, and I can live with that.