Spectrum Sharing: an innovative approach to dealing with wireless bandwidth demand
Data hungry smartphones, tablets and the Internet of Things (telematics, traffic sensors, etc.) are creating a digital traffic jam that could limit economic growth. Devices are starting to consume more bandwidth and spectrum than there is available, and government regulators are grappling with solutions, including completely rethinking of how bandwidth should be utilized.
A recent Nielsen report found that 46% of U.S. mobile phone users own a smartphone as of Q4 2011, and analysts expect that Apple will sell its 100th million iPad later this year. In fact, there are now more wireless devices than there are people living in the United States.
Smartphones consume 24 times more data than conventional cell phones and tablets use a whopping 120 times more bandwidth, according to The Wireless Association (CTIA), an industry trade group. Innovations like intelligent personal assistants push the limits of today’s finite carrier bandwidth closer toward a spectrum deficit or degradation in service.
It’s not just an industry concern. Even the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) anticipates a spectrum deficit by 2014, due to the proliferation of data intensive smartphones, tablets, applications, and services.
It is in everyone’s interest to resolve this issue quickly. A 2009 World Bank / IFC report found that economic growth increases 1.3 percent for every 10 percent increase in high-speed Internet connections. The Internet is the single best way to deliver public and private services to rural areas, the report noted.
The spectrum deficit hasn’t impacted the economy –yet. The good news is that this scarcity is self-imposed, and the government has several options at its disposal to resolve the issue before it does. Clearing spectrum bands and holding auctions to assign rights to frequencies is the customary approach, but regulators should shift to a fundamentally different approach and permit bandwidth sharing.
Clearing spectrum alone isn’t the solution
A 2010 Broadband Plan requires that 500 MHz of spectrum be cleared within the next decade. The goal was to encourage continued wireless innovation by making underutilized spectrum available for commercial use, but that initiative had the added benefit of surfacing problems that can occur without sharing.
A March 2012 report by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the Department of Commerce, found that clearing the 1755MHz – 1855MHz band would cost $18 billion and cause significant disruption. It is now well understood that making additional spectrum available cannot be accomplished rapidly enough to meet the public’s demand for wireless broadband services. It can be disruptive, and it is not always feasible. Spectrum owners aren’t easy to move, due to the time and effort of evaluating the alternatives, and as a result it is further delaying progress.
Therefore, a cost benefit analysis is necessary to determine the feasibility of how and when bandwidth may be auctioned. Net revenue from an FCC auction failed to cover the cost and the auction process favors a range of application types. In contrast, making more spectrum available through sharing could benefit every stakeholder. There is no reason for continued delay.
Rethinking how bandwidth is used
The White House is advocating sharing as the most scalable long-term solution. A 2012 report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) concluded that sharing spectrum is the most optimal way to meet demand. PCAST concluded that sharing should be a mainline approach to making more spectrum available, and asked that the Secretary of Commerce identify federal spectrum to implement pilot projects.
This way, spectrum can be used more efficiently across all bands. Sharing can be accomplished with current technology such as specialized cognitive radios that circumvent interference, and network operators can deploy an FCC approved database service that intelligently monitors frequencies to protect incumbents while assuring high quality of service.
These technologies work in unison to address potential operational issues when dealing with shared spectrum, make optimal use of spectrum, and permit new users to coexist on the same frequencies as incumbents. Some incumbents include broadcasters, emergency services, and even the U.S. military.
Network operators, service providers, and carriers can deploy equipment with the authorized spectrum available near a device’s geo-location. It is important to note that these databases are situation-aware spectrum sharing technologies; so vital government services and incumbent services are not competing for use of the spectrum. Performance and reliability trials in the United States and United Kingdom have demonstrated the value of solutions that prevent interference with other wireless users sharing the spectrum. In all cases, a database solution successfully enabled users sharing the spectrum to co-exist peacefully.
If these solutions were adopted new services and new products would be enabled, and would increase competition in the marketplace. There are significantly more unlicensed applications than licensed ones. Sharing can be beneficial to the incumbents by giving them access to new technologies, new services, and revenue from leasing frequencies they own. The economic potential is enormous, and is an opportunity to act now.
Today’s, geo-location database technology is part of the solution
The technology for sharing spectrum is ready, and the basic rules for unlicensed use across other bands exist in the TV White Space (TVWS) regulation. However, changes to laws would be required for Federal spectrum holders to lease their unused spectrum and retain the value that was paid to them for the use. Local, state, federal government, industry advocates, and the marketplace all have a role in setting the direction of spectrum policy.
The U.S. was the first to commercialize TV White Space in Wilmington, NC in January 2012.
TVWS trials are underway throughout the world (United Kingdom, Finland & Singapore), with other countries currently planning to or having expressed interest in moving forward with TVWS trials including Brazil, South Africa, and South Korea.
The expansiveness of these trials is demonstrating that bandwidth sharing does work, and if policy innovation doesn’t happen in the U.S., it will happen elsewhere.
The U.S. needs to take a leadership position to ensure it doesn’t fall behind the economic curve and become less competitive. That means regulators must change how bandwidth is used, encourage pro growth policies, and follow the recommendations outlined in the PCAST report.