Spectrum Management Heading for a Historic Change

Spectrum not only is the foundation for all wireless and mobile services, it is a foundational matter for would-be service providers. And big changes are coming.

New spectrum formerly used for TV broadcasting is being reallocated to mobile communications. And at least some of that reallocation process will involve methods of adjusting the behavior of networks and devices dynamically, based on interference issues.

New thinking is happening about sharing existing spectrum as well. It simply is too expensive and time-consuming to conduct widespread "clear and auction" operations across much of the communications-capable spectrum below 3 GHz.

So much attention now is focused on how existing licensed users can be persuaded to share their frequencies with new commercial users as well. Incentives will play a key role: existing licensees will have to see clear financial benefits for doing so, and since so much licensed spectrum below 3 GHz is licensed to government and military users, such incentives will be tricky.

And the ways mobile operators use mobile licensed spectrum, unlicensed spectrum and fixed network assets is changing. Already, even without formal business relationships, perhaps 60 percent to 80 percent of mobile device Internet access occurs on Wi-Fi connections.

Some would say that reveals a key strategic weakness for mobile operators, whose costs of providing Internet bandwidth are too high to survive massive adoption of mobile video consumption.

And though there is more attention paid to global standards, the U.S. market will in some ways remain a bit different.

In some ways, the continental-sized U.S. market has allowed the U.S. communications business to develop based at times on local standards not shared with most of the rest of the world. The primary past example is use of CDMA air interfaces alongside GSM, where in most of the rest of the world GSM was the sole standard.

Frequency plans within the United States will be the salient example of this in the next phase of the mobile business, as most of the rest of the world tries to create a common 700-MHz band for mobile communications across Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Once again, because of past spectrum allocation decisions, the U.S. will remain a market without full frequency harmonization with most of the rest of the world. How important that might be is not so clear, though.

Global frequency coordination is helpful for manufacturers, as it allows more scale when developing handsets. It is helpful for international travelers who then can roam almost at will when traveling (assuming they don’t mind the international tariffs).

But advances in radio agility are important. In principle, it is possible to equip a device for frequency agility that can compensate for different frequencies used in different countries. And since all mobile carriers have agreed on Long Term Evolution as the common air interface standard (even if there are differences in modulation), frequency might ultimately be less an issue.

The issue for European regulators and industry concerns is whether the 2012
World Radiocommunication Conference of 2012, which decided to open up the 700MHz band across the EMEA region for mobile communications, will be able to come up with enough consensus to allow a further decision at the 2015 WARC meeting.

Of course, that process will be contentious, as TV broadcasters will have to be induced to surrender their use of spectrum to mobile interests. That has not proven easy, wheneve it has had to happen.

But such decisions now are among the growing range of ways national regulators are playing a fundamental role in setting the stage for the next phase of mobile communications growth. Though observers might disagree on how much additional spectrum is required, nearly everybody believes more spectrum will be needed.

And much of the focus will be on ways to find new ways to use spectrum already licensed for some other purpose, to some other users, as very little of the spectrum most useful for communications actually is unclaimed. That means a historically new look at ways to enable sharing of licensed spectrum, more use of frequency-agile networks and devices, and a new business role for unlicensed spectrum.
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