Jeffrey Burt at eWeek offers a good overview of the essential tension between the government and the wireless industry over spectrum in this report on the keynote of CTIA Wireless 2012 in New Orleans this week.
It's a big issue as data traffic builds. The positions of the two sides are not surprising. Burt pares down the issue to its essence: The CTIA - and, presumably, the carriers and service providers who they represent - believe that the government should open more spectrum for their use. The government's position is that it is proactively opening spectrum and will continue to do so. The industry, they suggest, must do a better job of driving efficiency in what it does have.
Though the positions are clearly delineated, which side is playing more politics and which is doing a better job of telling the story straight is difficult to figure out. The facile - and probably true - answer is that there is a bit of truth on each side.
For instance, companies don't make big deals and put their futures on the line unless they are serious about an issue. If it is granted that the driver behind the ill-fated T-Mobile/AT&T deal indeed was as reported - an effort by AT&T to get its hands on more spectrum - it is unlikely that the CTIA is posturing or playing politics. The group represents AT&T, after all.
On the other side of the coin, innovations such as white space transmissions - in which spectrum between television channels is used on a flexible basis - shows that innovation in happening. This innovation involves carriers and vendors proactively performing research and development in the private sector. It also requires that the government allow it to happen. The bottom line is that both sides can claim that what they are calling for the other side to do (issue more spectrum and perform more research) is important. Both sides can say that they are meeting the others' demand.
Another innovation that was discussed at the conference - it's unclear from this report in The New York Times whether it was at the keynote or elsewhere - is femtocells, a small cell technology that offloads data from cellular to broadband networks. The idea has been kicking around for a few years, with middling success. The fact that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski made it a major point suggests that the commission agrees that femtocells are a good idea and that it agrees that freeing up bandwidth is a major priority. It appears that the commission is serious about the technology:
Mr. Genachowski said small cells would be the key to meeting the rising demand for mobile data because they increase the density of network deployment several times over. The commission will be holding proceedings to make a band of spectrum available for carriers to install small cells on their networks themselves.
The need, and the parameters of the conflict, were explained by Michael Harper in a feature at RedOrbit.com late last month. The bottom line is that consumer demand is overwhelming. While the growth of cellular and mobility was predictable, its explosive nature was not. Dealing with such growth on the fly would be difficult in the best of circumstances. The prospects for concerted action seem dim when the massive increase in demand is layered atop the already strained relations between the business community and administration and the beginning of the election campaign.