A Deeper Look into Wireless Spectrum Capacity and Its Effect on Device Performance and Consumers: A Response to CNNMoney Tech’s Spectrum Series

by Latoya Livingston on March 25, 2012

Part IV: Are There Any Solutions?

As our nation faces an impending spectrum shortage, experts are putting forth solutions on how to avert the crisis.  In a CNNMoney Tech article, David Goldman left his readers with a few methods that are allowing the industry to stave off the spectrum crisis:

First Method

Cell splitting – that is, adding more cell towers or radios to existing sites – would increase the number of connections that a network can handle.  While the method is promising, it is costly and comes with its own problems.

Adding more cell towers seems like a good idea to many consumers, until they realize that the cell tower would be put next door to their home or at some other aesthetically sensitive area.  However, Goldman has pointed out that Alcatel-Lucent’s innovative technological spirit has created lightRadio, an antenna small enough to fit in the palm of your hand that can be placed on top of telephone poles and on the sides of buildings.  This is very promising, but it does have its drawback: even if we could get over the hump of where to put the tower or lightRadio cube, there is also the problem of signal interference between the sites.

Second Method

LTE, or Long Term Evolution: almost everyone has seen the commercials boasting how better 4G LTE smartphones are than their G-deficient counterparts.  Advertisers have been great about selling the public on why they should have a 4G phone, but not as great about explaining why.  Well, I’ll borrow this analogy from Goldman: “If you imagine spectrum as a highway, that road is getting jammed with trucks carrying big loads of YouTube and Netflix” because of the massive capacity needed for streaming capabilities.  As Goldman put it, 4G technology is the tool that “can get those trucks to drive much closer together, freeing up capacity,” adding about six and eight times more capacity than a traditional 2G network.

This sounds very promising, but here’s the rub:  most cellular customers don’t have 4G-capable smartphones.  This means that those of us without 4G devices will have to go out and spend another $200 to $600 on a new smartphone.  This is troubling, not to mention expensive, especially for low-income and minority customers.  More cost efficient service providers like Leap’s Cricket Wireless and MetroPCS are beginning to offer 4G LTE service, but it’s going to take time for them to build out the service.  Currently, Cricket’s 4G LTE service is only available in Tucson, Arizona.  There are other concerns, as well. For example, CNET.com describes MetroPCS’ 4G service speed as “a very good 3G network.”

All in all, even industry experts aren’t touting the benefits of 4G LTE as the wireless providers would hope.  For one, people have to buy the phone, the carriers have to build out more 4G areas, and at some point 4G won’t be efficient enough to handle the tidal wave of smartphone adoption.  “You can try to be more efficient, but we’re really nearing the end of that,” says Ken Rehbehn, an analyst with Yankee Group, in Goldman’s article. “It’s reaching the point of diminishing returns as we push up against the boundaries of physics.”

Third Method

Goldman’s solution of getting people to switch from getting their Internet from wireless to W-Fi seems reasonable for most Americans.  Heck, that’s how I keep my wireless bill under reasonable restraint.  However, that option just isn’t available for many low-income and minority consumers who simply can’t afford the $100 to $200 bill from Comcast, Verizon, or whatever home broadband service provider that they have in the area.  Not to mention rural Americans, who just don’t have the option to adopt broadband at home because fiber hasn’t yet been (and probably never will be) built out to them.  Hotspots in packed areas like New York City’s Times Square is great if you’re on a vacation, but that does little to help the low income people living in the Bronx, or even some parts of Manhattan.

Fourth Method

Spectrum Auctions:  Will it be too little too late?  Spectrum auctions are going to be good for getting more spectrum for wireless, and it will be a revenue raiser for those holding the spectrum, but many experts are downplaying the overall impact that it will actually have.

First, it’s going to take years for the auctions to occur; some experts are predicting no earlier than 2014.  Second, the spectrum legislation that President Obama signed, HR 3630, lacked key bands that the industry hoped would be included, namely Department of Defense’s 1755 178 MHz band and 3550 3650 MHz band.  In addition, the spectrum acquired through the auction won’t be much help to low income customers who rely on Metro PSC and Cricket Wireless for services.  Plus, without bidding restrictions, it is unlikely that they can win a bidding war against Verizon and AT&T.

Although this is disappointing to many, optimists still see it as a positive.  As Paul Kirby, writing for Communications Daily, so aptly put it, “half a loaf is better than none.”  And as Amy Levine, special counsel to the FCC chairman, noted at MMTC’s spectrum forum, the passage of the incentive auction legislation is a great step, not only for spectrum holders, bidders, and the Commission, but “there is a need to look beyond reallocation to spectrum sharing and efficiency as a solution.”  I couldn’t agree more.

All in all, we as consumers must come to the realization that without a clear plan for how to distribute, manage, and make spectrum utilization more efficient, smartphone and tablet users will inevitably feel the squeeze from the growing spectrum crunch.  This squeeze will undeniably be felt by low-income and urban-area dwellers first through shoddy service and raised prices.  Let’s hope that the government and the movers and shakers within the telecom industry will work expeditiously to wrest us from the grip of the spectrum crunch.

This concludes BBSJ’s four-part series on spectrum problems and solutions. Please weigh in with your own thoughts and suggestions about the issue in the comment section below!

  • Latoya Livingston

    Latoya Livingston is a Washington, D.C.-based attorney with years of experience working in the public and private sector. Attorney Livingston joins MMTC after performing pro bono work for the organization last year.

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  • Anonymous

    Or, there could be a fifth solution: allow broadcasters to provide a broadcast overlay via TV spectrum.  Any spectrum obtained through an auction will have to be used differently (think broadcast overlay, one-to-many) or the wireless carriers (one-to-one architecture) will never have enough spectrum.  Broadcasters would pay an ancillary revenue fee to the Treasury and over time billions more would end up in Congress’ coffers.  This would allow wireless carriers the spectrum they purportedly need without an auction of a national resource.  Broadcasters could take any monies realized from spectrum lease fees and plow it back into programming for their free over-the-air TV station. So let’s rehash; spectrum to wireless carriers and better programming for OTA TV–sounds like a winner to me.

  • KeepingTechReal

     I totally understand where you are coming from beuhboi… but in all
    reality it would never happen.  The American people don’t have a good
    enough lobby with Congress and/or the FCC to allow that to happen.  If
    the world was fair, then the FCC, as a public good, would collect the
    spectrum that they received free or for a nominal amount by the FCC. 
    Then the wireless companies would have to bid on the spectrum in the
    auction and the monies would go to the Treasury.  It was our spectrum…
    that was given away or sold very cheap… we have a right to
    compensation.

  • Anonymous

    What happens when broadcasters refuse to give up spectrum through a “voluntary” auction? What happens when areas along the congested Northeast and West Coast corridors fail to return even a fraction of the anticipated spectrum, what happens when spectrum coordination occurs along the border states of Canada and Mexico?  What will happen when LPTV (low power TV) broadcasters (40-45% of which are minorities) sue the government for expropriation of their livelihoods.  Note: Current iteration of National Broadband Plan would repack LPTV broadcasters out of business and not even provide funds for relocation expenses or cost of equipment.

    What will or should happen is what I outlined in my earlier email.  Broadcasters can provide the needed spectrum to wireless carriers while still maintaining a healthy, “free”, over-the-air broadcast service (OTA) to the American public.  Congress can declare the NBP a success and move on to more pressing issues.

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