Spectrum: The Big Crunch is Coming

Published in The Hindu “Scarce spectrum impacts mobile broadband

Published in Voice & Data: Spectrum: The Big Crunch is Coming

The ubiquity of the mobile phone and its ability to access the internet has been nothing short of miraculous. Mobile broadband has had such a powerful impact in recent times that it was described as the “Mobile Miracle” by the ITU-T.

A report by the Broadband Commission (set up by ITU-T and UNESCO) says that mobile users grew from 740 mn in 2000 to 5 bn in 2010, of which 1.8 bn were mobile broadband users. And this report says that for a 10% increase in mobile penetration, there is an increase of 1.38% in the GDP of the region.

Powerful smartphones, extremely fast networks, content-rich applications, and increasing user awareness, have together resulted in a virtual explosion of mobile broadband data usage. This explosion has begun to ring warning bells the world over. For it is predicted that with the existing spectrum availability, the world will run out of spectrum capacity by the middle of this decade.

The reasons behind this are fairly obvious. The growth in mobile data traffic has been exponential. According to a report by Ericsson, mobile data is expected to double annually till 2015. Mobile broadband will see a billion subscribers this year (2011), and possibly touch 5 bn by 2015.

According to IDATE, a consulting firm, the total mobile data will exceed 127 exabytes (an exabyte is 1018 bytes, or 1 mn terabytes) by 2020, an increase of over 33% from 2010.

There are 2 key drivers behind this phenomenal growth in mobile data. One is the explosion of devices-smartphones, tablet PCs, e-readers, laptops with wireless access. All these devices deliver high-speed content and web browsing on the move. The second is video. Over 30% of overall mobile data traffic is video streaming, which is extremely bandwidth hungry. The rest of the traffic is web browsing, file downloads, and email.

The growth has been fuelled by advances in wireless technology, as it evolved from EDGE, HSPA to LTE. There’s high growth of HSPA networks in the US, Canada and Latin America. And there will be over 25 operators with commercial deployments of LTE by 2015. EDGE, HSPA, and LTE have been enabling the delivery of extremely high-speed data to and from the internet and between devices.
However the ability to squeeze more and more bits per hertz of spectrum comes with additional costs and increased complexity. And despite all the advances, there is a technological limit to the bandwidth possible in the existing spectrum. This upper bound is determined by Shannon’s theorem, which provides the theoretical limits to the capacity of a channel for sending or receiving data.

Given the current usage trends, coupled with the theoretical limits of available spectrum, the world will run out of available spectrum for the growing army of mobile users. The current spectrum availability cannot support the surge in mobile data traffic indefinitely, and demand for wireless capacity will outstrip spectrum availability by the middle of this decade.

According a report published by the International Telecommunication Union–Radio (ITU-R), the spectrum requirement for regions in the world will be between 500 MHz and 1 GHz by 2020. The demand for spectrum bandwidth, based on average mobile broadband spectrum usage, clearly indicates that this demand will exceed the supply of spectral capacity by the middle of 2014.
Mobile Spectrum is a scarce resource and the governments of all the nations must work to optimize the usage of this resource. The ITU-R allocates spectrum frequencies for the use of various countries. In this context, the NGMN alliance (a global alliance of operators) states that “a timely and globally aligned spectrum allocation policy will play a key role in the development of a viable ecosystem on a national, regional and global scale, whose benefits will last well beyond the next decade”. Hence, there is a need for global harmonization in spectrum allocation, to prevent fragmentation, and to promote innovation for the next generation of networks.

The issue of spectrum scarcity is the real problem which must be addressed immediately by all nations going forward, given the fact that it typically takes some 6 years for spectrum to be operational, from the time it is allocated.

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