My apologies to radio engineers, IEEE members and others of a sufficiently technical bent who might be offended by the primer about to follow.
Wireless equipment (smartphones, over-the-air TVs, WiFi access points, GPS, RFID etc) owe their existence to the good old radio and the physics of electromagnetism. With a couple of Google searches you can discover the nuances of transmitters, receivers, frequencies, amplifiers, amplitude and a host of other esoteric terms. All of these devices either transmit or receive (or both) waves across the radio spectrum. Within the radio spectrum there are slices or bands called frequencies. These radio frequencies are essentially the specific highways over which individual radio waves travel. Frequencies have their own characteristics: for example, lower frequency radio waves can typically travel farther than higher frequency radio waves given the same amount of power.
The relevant part of this discussion for our purpose is that the FCC (in the United States) is the organization that sets the rules on what frequencies can be used for what purposes.
The FCC (obviously) does not operate in a vacuum. It solicits inputs from the public, commercial enterprises and stakeholders on what frequencies should be used for what purposes. And, moreover, it periodically auctions off (or reallocates) these frequencies to the commercial sector based on rules it sets. These auctions generate billions of dollars to the Federal Government as it effectively “sells” these slices of spectrum. The top four cellular companies in the U.S. (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint) have spent billions of dollars on buying frequencies in different geographic regions around the country.
So, you can imagine that with the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and other wireless equipment that these frequencies are in much demand. The FCC is now faced with the task of attempting to reallocate frequencies currently in use by special groups to meet this demand. The next big battle ground is over 5G.
So what is 5G? It is, simplistically, the next generation of Cellular that promises much faster speeds for data and voice but more importantly, it is the super highway for all Machine-to-Machine (M2M) and the Internet of Things (IoT) devices/appliances/sensors/applications. Since 1980 or so, we’ve seen a new Generation of mobile telecommunications every 10 years- 2020 promises to be when 5G starts to get traction.
One way to provide much better data rates is to utilize higher frequencies. These higher frequencies, now in use by Satellite operators, the military and other specialized users, will be the next battleground between the cellular operators and their brethren and the incumbent terrestrial users of these frequencies.
FierceWireless covered FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s speech at the Satellite Industry Association annual leadership dinner in Washington last week. The gist of his speech was this: the Satellite companies, users of the 24 Ghz and above spectrum, need to find a way to share that with the cellular companies and other companies whose fortunes are tied to the “terrestrial industry” (Google, Qualcomm, Intel – you know the players). As Wheeler said: ” it is far more practical to get on the train than to be run over by it.”
The incumbents are fighting a losing battle here. There are too many forces with too much at stake for them to hold on to valuable frequencies. Moreover, the FCC and the Feds, in their stated desire to rationally allocate spectrum to serve the greatest number and promote the greatest good, are also looking at more auction money into the Treasury’s coffers. In an era of trillion dollar budgets it is hard to imagine that tens of billions make a difference…but it helps the political cache of those making the deposit.
So we’re now poised for a show down on this issue. The SIA, on their website, is very explicit about their position: “Satellite services operate in a broad range of radio frequencies and rely on consistent and effective spectrum policies in the U.S. and abroad for their ability to deliver reliable connectivity and ongoing innovation. SIA works globally to protect the highly critical spectrum used by satellite communications from interference, auction, or reallocation.”
So what’s the take away from all of this for the non-technical:
- Our continuing collective demand for more wireless connectivity, like the early American settler’s demand for more land, will push out sitting incumbents, in this case the SIA (or American Indians in this analogy). It is inevitable. The SIA’s only hope is to negotiate some type of coexistence agreement.
- The push to perfect Software Defined Radios (SDRs) that can logically select frequencies that maximize performance and minimize interference is the next frontier in all of this. At some point, given the physical limits of the radio spectrum, it will be more efficient to perfect SDRs than invest in hardware platforms that provide additional supply for wireless services. Again, sitting incumbents will object and will need to be compensated.
- There are very large companies with much at stake aligned on both sides of the spectrum debate – one one side, the incumbents, who will always claim a need to continue to have exclusive rights; on the other, the challengers, who will argue minimally for coexistence but lobby for reallocation. Both sides will appeal to the common good. Both sides will lobby the FCC. In the end, it is difficult to imagine the resource not going to the side with the most users – the only possible exception being the Federal Government and the FCC holding on to frequencies it deems critical for national defense.
And you, the consumer, should do what? Minimally pay attention – you are, after all, the end user of all of these advanced wireless services. Understand that economic self-interest (as usual) will probably define who’s on what side. The FCC typically solicits feedback from the public before it rules on an issue. In fact, under Wheeler’s tenure it has probably done a better job of public outreach than any predecessor at the FCC or current Federal government department (we’ll give him that). In the end, although these future battles won’t have the “not-in-my-backyard” angst that currently surrounds the location of cellular antennas, their outcome will be much more important to consumers, incumbents and challengers.