Licensed v. Unlicensed Spectrum a Key Question as Wireless Use Accelerates


The growth of consumer, enterprise and M2M wireless applications has set the stage for a possible bandwidth shortage. The good news is that people are paying attention to the issue and making preparations. The bad news is that many of those folks are lobbyists for telecommunications companies and the entities for which they are making preparations are their clients.

Licensed spectrum gets the most attention. One of the underlying dynamics of the wireless world is whether or not a particular service or family of services uses or can reliably do its job on unlicensed spectrum. The issue -- which comes down to roughly the difference between membership in an exclusive club and a ducking into a neighborhood tavern -- is well described by Katie Fehrenbacher at Earth2Tech. On one hand, licensed spectrum is regulated and costly. That tends to keep out the electronic riff raft, and enables the license holder to know just about everything that is going on in that piece of spectrum. That cuts down on potential conflicts and sources of interference. Unlicensed spectrum is free and open to everyone, as long as they follow some basic ground rules. It's cheaper, more accessible and more topsy-turvy.

The issue of whether or not to pony up the extra dough for licensed spectrum is a function of the importance and sensitivity of the applications that will be carried. Service providers who are confident of their tools to protect signals may be comfortable opting for the more chaotic environment. Fehrenbacher's piece looks at the issue in relation to smart grids. She quotes some executives who think that unlicensed spectrum is stable enough and others who don't. Of course, the smart grid infrastructure has more and less sensitive elements, so at least to some extent the reliance on licensed or unlicensed spectrum depends upon what it is being used for.

The New York Times Saul Hansell says that the Obama Administration-and, if confirmed, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski-will face a lot of tough decisions and heavy lobbying related to whether or not new licensed spectrum will be offered to consumers and, if so, how it will be allocated. There are several basic underlying points to consider: The explosion of consumer and M2M services will greatly enhance the value of the spectrum capable of making them a reality. This means very powerful forces will be lined up to push things in one direction or the other. The undertone suggests that the next year or so will be pivotal. Spectrum issues are intrinsically linked to other sticky topics such as Net Neutrality and open access.


This study, which was released late last year by Rysavy Research, was referenced by Hansell as an example of the jockeying that will take place. The study was sponsored by the CTIA industry association. The basic thrust of the executive summary is that bandwidth demand is exploding now, and that things will accelerate with the advent of 4G. Indeed, it says that "a leading national wireless broadband provider"-which it doesn't name-says that demand could spike by between 250 and 600 times current usage by 2018. The report concludes, not surprisingly, that the answer to this challenge is to add licensed spectrum.