Spectrum Crisis: Fact Or Exaggeration?
By Paul Kruczkowski, Editor
It appears that the wireless spectrum crisis may have recently become the mobile broadband spectrum debate. Since 2010 — when the FCC declared that there would be a spectrum deficit of 275 MHz as soon as 2014, and subsequently released its National Broadband Plan to make 300 MHz of spectrum available by 2015 and 500 MHz available by the end of 2020 — it has been widely accepted that we are facing an impending spectrum crisis. The CTIA – The Wireless Association has long supported this position and recently reinforced it with data in its Semi-Annual Wireless Industry Survey showing significant growth in wireless subscriber connections and wireless network data traffic over the past year. Others, however, are questioning the validity of the crisis claims and the projections of runaway wireless network data traffic that have been used to support this argument since 2010.
The Crisis Critics
The interesting thing about the critics of the presumed crisis is that they agree with the FCC and CTIA that the wireless broadband industry would benefit from more available spectrum. On the other hand, they definitely disagree with CTIA’s projected 100%+ annual growth of network data traffic and the FCC’s doomsday position of a massive spectrum deficit by 2014. Tim Farrar, president of consulting and research firm Telecom, Media and Finance Associates, Inc., recently wrote an article on GigaOM called “The Myth of the Wireless Spectrum Crisis”, in which he questioned the FCC’s and CTIA’s narrative of an impending spectrum crisis and used the CTIA’s own data to show that network data traffic growth slowed substantially in the first six months of 2012.
I spoke to Farrar last week, and he told me that, “There are a lot of good technical reasons for making more mobile broadband spectrum available, but the decision to do so should not be driven by flawed calculations and growth projections that are higher than the operators themselves are providing.”
CTIA Fires Back, FCC Moves Forward
The CTIA was quick to respond to the crisis critics, defending its position with a blog post of its own. In “The Truth about the Wireless Spectrum Crisis”, Dr. Robert Roach, head of CTIA’s Research Department and the man responsible for directing CTIA's surveys, defends CTIA’s position and the data behind it.
Meanwhile, the FCC continues to execute it National Broadband Plan at the snail’s pace of government. Last month, it made 20 MHz of the WCS bands (2305 – 2315 MHz and 2350 – 2360 MHz) available for broadband wireless use. FCC efforts to increase wireless spectrum through reallocation of Broadcast TV frequencies, and establish rules for the auction/reverse actions of that spectrum, won’t be finalized until mid-2013. Also, the harvesting of the 1755 – 1850 MHz band from the government could take almost a decade to clear and carries a hefty price tag of $18 billion.
What’s Really Going On?
It’s very easy to believe in the spectrum crisis when confronted with CTIA data but take for comparison the European Commission’s decision to increase broadband wireless spectrum last week, which was based on predictions that global mobile data traffic will increase 26% annually by 2015. This growth rate is much lower than CTIA projections and is sustainable if one subscribes to Cooper’s Law, which states that the capacity of radio communications doubles every 30 months. The broadband wireless industry has been busy doing that very thing this past year.
The major carriers have been making spectrum deals to ensure they have the spectrum they require for the short term, and to strengthen their financial positions to be competitive going forward. They have applied technology to maximize spectral efficiency through smaller cell sizes, MIMO, and beamforming antenna techniques. They have also made changes to their business models by implementing data caps and pricing plans that put downward pressure the growth of network data levels. It is obvious that the carriers desire more spectrum, yet I have not hear them predicting doom in 2014 if they don’t get it. So why all the hype about a spectrum crisis?
I suspect the “crisis” was the FCC’s way to create the urgency required to get Congress to act on its proposed spectrum plan. Let’s face it, even now, Congress is staring sequestration and the fiscal cliff in the face and is unable to act quickly to resolve these monumental issues. So who can blame the FCC for making an extreme argument for the crisis, which is now impossible to back away from, and any party that would benefit from the influx of spectrum has gladly remained silent. The problem is that the decision of what frequencies to harvest, how much frequency to repurpose, and how quickly to provide this spectrum should be based on cost, feasibility, and the technical merits of adding spectrum — such as getting the most performance out of the LTE-Advanced hardware when it is rolled out. Harvesting 300 MHz of spectrum in four years for the purpose of averting a crisis that doesn’t appear likely only leads to rash decisions, like those made surrounding the LightSquared debacle.