There Is More than One Way to Thwart a Spectrum Crisis

Carl Weinschenk

The explosive growth of mobility is the accelerant that is fueling much of what is going on in the telecommunications world today. This is nowhere more obvious than in the broad world of wireless spectrum.

Spectrum is a fixed quantity. There are two ways that the amazing growth of business and consumer wireless services can be supported by something that is this set in stone. The first is to transition spectrum now serving other sectors — such as the military and municipalities — to those who need it most. The other is to develop technology that can more efficiently use what is available.

There was some significant news last week that impacts both the “more” and “better” variables in the spectrum availability equation: WirelessWeek and other sites report that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking aimed at providing commercial entities some access to the 100 MHz of spectrum in the 3550 to 3650 GHz band. The NPRM said that eventually three groups will occupy the spectrum: current government and military users; “critical use facilities”; and “general authorized access,” which, presumably, means commercial services.

The move is aimed at encouraging the development of small cell technology. This — the “better” side of the equation — features an innovative next-generation of cells that are far more flexible and granular than the macrocells with which we all are familiar. For instance, small cells are a key to offloading traffic from the mobile spectrum to the wired Internet, thus cutting cellular capacity requirements.

CNNMoney has a funny story about the news that Sprint is offering $2.1 billion for the portion of Clearwire — which is a tiny fraction under half — that it doesn’t already own. Sprint, in turn, is on the cusp of being majority-owned by Japan’s Softbank. The ability to get the Clearwire spectrum is seen as an important driver of Softbank’s interest.

The story is funny because the writer goes through several phases of alternately saying that it is a good and then bad arrangement for Sprint. Good: Together, Sprint and Clearwire will have double the spectrum of any other American carrier. Bad: That’s misleading because the spectrum Clearwire brings to the table is at extremely high frequencies, so it is of low quality and isn’t used by current mobile devices. Good: The spectrum could be perfect for small cell technology. The story ends on that note, so apparently the good outweighs the bad.

Another company got spectrum news last week — and this news was less ambiguously good. Bloomberg reports that the FCC has approved Dish Network’s proposal to allow it to become a wireless carrier. Of course, this has nothing directly to do with carving out more spectrum or more efficiently using what is allotted to wireless services. However, it may indirectly add to the mix by shaking things up by bringing in an aggressive and well-financed new player.



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