Ars Technica last week posted a very interesting story on a topic that could become important during 2011 and beyond: finding and implementing techniques that enable more flexible and efficient allocation of wireless spectrum.
Spectrum is the lifeblood of telecom, and it poses especially tricky challenges in the wireless sector. The story explains that the current approach to wireless spectrum allocation is to auction it off in chunks, or blocks. The winner then does what they want with the spectrum. That's wasteful because bits and pieces or even whole swatches may lie fallow.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), according to the story, has released a notice of information on ways to change this approach and to create a wireless spectrum allocation system capable of supporting the millions of devices being added by the week. Writes author Matthew Laser:
The gist of the probe is that the government needs to find ways to make wireless licenses 'dynamic'-that is, useable by far more than one licensee. 'Even as we look to free up existing spectrum to meet the needs for wireless broadband, we can and should explore ways to make more dynamic and opportunistic use of the spectrum we have,' noted FCC Chair Julius Genachowski following the NOI's release-that is, 'to help us use our spectrum resource more intensively and efficiently.'
The story goes through a few of the prospective techniques. Some borrow from white space technology and rely, in one way or another, on finding and using spectrum that is not being used-in some cases on a real-time basis. Another approach is to cobble together shards of noncontiguous spectrum and make it act as if it is an integrated block.
The point is that spectrum is the most valuable commodity in telecommunications. As mobility exploded during the past few years, spectrum authorized for propagation through the air has become an even greater commodity. Political machinations and big deals-like AT&T's spectrum purchase from Qualcomm-can make and break projects and even companies. New approaches will tilt the playing field toward vendors and service providers-and eventually toward end users.
The traditional ways of doling out spectrum will remain preeminent for years, or even decades, no matter what the FCC does. What could change is the degree. If spectrum becomes available in a more granular manner, the dynamic will shift in a couple of ways. More data could be broadcast because fewer bits and pieces of spectrum would go to waste. The ability to put pieces of spectrum together more creatively would lead to equally inventive business plays. Perhaps on-demand spectrum and temporary spectrum would be possible.
It's difficult to predict precisely what these will be, but they certainly will empower smaller and likely more entrepreneurial and agile players. The bottom line is that the FCC's NOI will not change things this year-RCR Wireless reports, for instance, that the next auction is slated for July 19. But the inquiry should be watched because it can potentially lead to big changes down the road.