Everyone wants data. Smartphones consume 24 times more data than traditional cell phones, while tablets use a whopping 120 times more, according to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). To transmit all this data, carriers are buying up virtual tracts of land, known as the wireless spectrum or wireless bands, but there’s a problem: Room is running out. What happens when there’s no more space for streaming data?
Think of the wireless spectrum like FM radio. In a given area, no two carriers can transmit over the same frequency at the same time or they create interference. To deal with this problem, the FCC has auctioned off parts of the spectrum to companies, usually between 700 megahertz (MHz) and 2.6 gigahertz (Ghz). The rapid increase in smartphone and tablet use, coupled with network improvements such as LTE and 4G, has significantly increased the amount of data downloaded and uploaded by users, leaving wireless providers scrambling to buy more of the spectrum. The FCC now has two issues: First, do they allow big carriers to buy up all available space and force out small players? Second — and perhaps more importantly — where do they get more space to sell?
According to a recent CNET article, the FCC wants to free up an additional 500 MHz of space by 2020. To do so, it has several options. It can wait for other government agencies to give up claims on wireless bands, or it can change the rules for blocks of spectrum such as satellites and then sell them to the highest bidder.
Another option is an “incentive auction,” aimed at getting TV providers to sell portions of their owned but unused spectrum at a premium. As reported by GigaOM, Google has already received permission to create a database of this “white space” and allow public access, letting users set up hot spot wireless networks almost anywhere and without interfering with other local signals. Expect that white space to shrink, however, as the FCC tries to convince television providers to sell their share of the coveted 600 to 700 MHz section of the wireless spectrum. The “600 block,” as it’s commonly known, is extremely valuable, not just because wireless space is at a premium but because these low-frequency signals can penetrate buildings, in turn providing far more reliable coverage in urban areas.
Time Will Tell
So far, there’s no word on exactly which wireless bands are up for grabs or exactly where the FCC will find another 500 MHz by 2020. In fact, some experts argue that even that much space won’t be enough as mobile device adoption increases along with user expectation. It’s possible portions of the spectrum may become unusable as companies “hold out” to prevent competitors from gaining a foothold or deploying new technology, but this may prompt government intervention or even sanctions if it goes too far.
The wireless bands aren’t full — at least not yet — and there are still white spaces out there available for public use. The market is shrinking, however, prompting bands to shift, narrow, or disappear altogether.
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