As far as you know, when you turn on the Internet on your mobile phone or tablet, it just works. You don’t need to tune to a particular frequency or give a certain calling code to get access to the network. That’s because your carrier takes care of it, leveraging its own piece of a large range of frequencies known as the wireless radio spectrum. You may hear about this mysterious entity on a daily basis, but not fully understand what’s going on. If you identify with this sentiment, then you might want to read a little further!
What Is It With All This “Spectrum” Business?
Each wireless network (Orange, T-Mobile, AT&T, and whatever else your country has) operates on a limited set of radio frequencies that are all part of the grand “wireless spectrum.” Without exception, if you live in a country that has wireless Internet coverage, your country has a certain radio frequency (RF) spectrum that it allocates to the highest bidder. Most countries, like Spain and the U.S., rely on the state (read: state and/or federal government) to manage the spectrum, although the U.S. has a very weird way of putting this into words within its own legislation. Other countries, such as New Zealand, have privatized their spectrum and reap the benefits of such an arrangement.
To successfully transmit packet data from your smartphone to a destination, it needs to be tied to a particular frequency managed by your carrier. But what if two carriers are using the same frequency? Your packets will interfere and there’s little anyone can do about it except for one of the companies to voluntarily agree to get out of the other carrier’s frequency range. This is the kind of problem that spectrum management attempts to resolve. It does this by assigning a certain piece of the large range of frequencies to a company that pays a certain amount of money. In the United States this is done via auction.
Unfortunately, this spectrum is a limited resource, so the government has to somehow find a “fair” way to give companies a piece of the pie they so desperately need.
Why Should You Care?
Remember when I said that the spectrum is a limited resource? Well, it’s been filled up quite a bit in some places. For example, in the U.S., the mobile communications spectrum (set between 0.7 and 2.6 GHz) has been running dry for a while. The best frequencies have been taken, and everyone is scrambling for the sloppy seconds left over from the big buyouts. As a result, there is a large amount of chaos in the mobile world, with companies cannibalizing each other and panicking over the explosion of smartphones in the market. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has even declared a shortage of spectrum, leading speculators to wonder what kinds of solutions will be employed to solve this issue.
To get a clearer perspective of the dire nature of the spectrum shortage, have a look at the image below.
I had to reduce the size of the image considerably, but this is the spectrum distribution of the United States. The white portions of the diagram show unallocated space. You’ll notice a big white area in the start of the diagram (an area which is of little to no use for mobile carriers) and if you look closely enough, you’ll see a very tiny smudge of white right at the end. That’s all that literally is up for grabs. The FCC isn’t kidding when it chooses the word “shortage” to describe its predicament.
A lack of spectrum means that you won’t have the same service or data transmission quality you once enjoyed (or never enjoyed, if you’re unlucky enough to be hit by the shortage already). Also, this isn’t just a U.S. thing. The European Union has been running short on spectrum for two years already.
Currently there are only three solutions for governments around the world to free up spectrum for sweet stuff like 4G LTE and more flexible Wi-Fi:
- Talk to government institutions that own pieces of spectrum they don’t use and tell them to pony up.
- Get TV operators to auction off what they’re not necessarily using.
- Allow mobile carriers to piggyback their signals on top of frequencies already used for satellite communications.
None of those solutions are permanent. Perhaps it’s time we start thinking about making a new working protocol that uses largely “white” pieces of the spectrum that no one else is looking at.
What do you think should be a solution to this whole mess? Give us your thoughts in a comment below!