Finding Precious Bandwidth

Carl Weinschenk

Only a limited amount of radio frequency spectrum is capable of supporting wireless communications. A subset of that is available to mobile companies. At the same time, the number of mobile devices is increasing radically, the types of content they are being used for is growing more demanding, and the average amount of time the devices are in use is shooting up.

The bottom line is that it is all an increasingly tight squeeze. That demand can be met in two basic ways: Add spectrum and do a more thorough job of squeezing every possible bit and byte out of what already is in use.

Both approaches are being implemented. The distribution of new spectrum, usually by federal auction, is ongoing. It’s largely a political issue and one that can be even more difficult to understand than the technical approaches. In the short term, the shutdown of the government is a threat to that process.

That interruption notwithstanding, various interest groups pay lawyers a tremendous amount of money to get their views on the record. An example of the glacial but important back and forth is illustrated by a report this week on a T-Mobile FCC filing on proposed limitations to the amount of spectrum a carrier can acquire in a given market.

For many, the more interesting dimension of increasing effective bandwidth is innovation. For instance, white space spectrum, or the use of spectrum between television channels, is an exciting area that is spawning techniques that will be useful in many sectors. This week, Nokia said that a test it ran in three Finnish cities on using the technology as an LTE enabler increased capacity by 18 percent without adding any infrastructure costs.

Another approach to keeping ahead of the demand curve is small cell technology. Until now, wireless carriers have relied on macro base stations. Integrating small cells into the mix allows bandwidth to be reused and provides a convenient way to transition signals from costly and scarce cellular spectrum to far less expensive Wi-Fi and/or wired networks.

In another move that possibly could be slowed down by the government closure, FierceBroadbandWireless reports that the FCC said that it will consider making it easier to roll out small cells and distributed antenna systems (DAS). Though this is written in typical Washington legalese, it potentially is a big deal, or at least the start of one:

Specifically, the FCC said it will open a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that in part will seek comment "on measures needed to reduce obstacles to obtaining access to rights-of-way and locations for wireless facilities." The agency pointed toward streamlining the environmental and historic preservation review processes for newer technologies like small cells and distributed antenna systems.

Small cells are a hot topic. Berg Insight released research in early September that traced the growth of the small cell category, which consists of femtocells, picocells and microcells. According to the Swedish firm, shipments will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 46.2 percent between last year and 2018. That translates to a jump from 4.1 million to 40 million units, the story at Telecom Lead said.

Accordingly, research and innovation will continue. Last week, Ericsson introduced what it calls the Radio Dot System, which the Total Telecom story on the news says is aimed at providing coverage in medium-sized to large buildings. The devices resemble smoke alarms. Commentary in the story says that Dots are aimed at data, while alternatives – DAS, pico and femtocells – essentially are voice technologies. The new devices will be available late next year, the story said.

Demand for bandwidth is huge. Too much money is on the table for it not to be met, due to the hard work of regulators, lawyers and the technologists.

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