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Running Out of Radio Waves? Mobile Carriers Think So But Others Say Just Improve Technology


"you have to provide additional spectrum to deal with the wound..."

With more than 83 percent of Americans owning cellphones, nearly half use smartphones and the growing demand for wi-fi equipped tablets, mobile carriers are saying they will soon need more radio waves appropriated to them to meet consumers' data demands.

The New York Times reports wireless carriers hinting at price hikes if the need for more bandwidth is not met. Still, others say what is considered a "crisis" by the carriers is more so them protecting themselves from competitors and less about consumers' wallets. The Times reports Verizon VP of Policy Communications, Ed McFadden, saying capacity issues will affect how much consumers pay for services, while the inventor of cellphones himself is saying this sentiment is being overblown:

Not even the inventor of the cellphone, Martin Cooper, is convinced that the wireless industry faces a serious challenge that cannot be overcome with technology. Mr. Cooper, a former vice president of Motorola and chairman of Dyna L.L.C., an incubator for new companies, says that claims of a so-called spectrum crisis are largely exaggerated.

“Somehow in the last 100 years, every time there is a problem of getting more spectrum, there is a technology that comes along that solves that problem,” he said in an interview. Mr. Cooper also sits on the technical advisory committee of the Federal Communications Commission, and he previously founded ArrayComm, a company that develops software for mobile antenna technologies, which with he said he is no longer associated.

The Times explains that the FCC regulates the radio wave spectrum to help prevent interference among all those using bands. FCC spokesman Neil Grace told the Times a number of factors working together will provide a solution to meeting increased demand. These include efficiency, new technology and adding a brand new spectrum.

One of these new technologies includes a method that eliminates any potential for interference of signals and therefore makes it unnecessary divide the spectrum, according to David Reed, an early Internet framer and a former computer science and engineering professor at MIT who now works at SAP Labs. He explained to the Times that thinking in terms of a "spectrum" is "a 1920s understanding of how radio communications work.”

Why companies haven't opted for using this newer technology before, Reed said, is because it opens the door for competition. The Times explains further:

When a company gets the license for a band of radio waves, it has the exclusive rights to use it. Once a company owns it, competitors can’t have it.

Mr. Reed said the carriers haven’t advocated for the newer technologies because they want to retain their monopolies.

Just today, Verizon announced its plan to auction off some of its radio frequency, which could be worth billions. The Associated Press has more on this proposal (via the Washington Post):

The offer is contingent on Verizon getting government approval for three deals to buy spectrum from cable companies and Leap Wireless for a total of about $4 billion. Those deals were struck in November and December, but have met resistance from public-interest groups who say the cellphone company, already the nation’s largest, doesn’t need more spectrum and shouldn’t be cozying up to competitors such as the cable companies.


The spectrum Verizon proposes to auction has been called the “beachfront property” of the airwaves because it makes it easy to build a wireless broadband network with good coverage.

The Times interviewed all the top wireless carriers, all of whom believe newer technology a quick fix not a long-term solution. More radio wave availability is needed. The Times reports Kathleen Ham, vice president for federal regulatory affairs of T-Mobile USA, comparing technological and efficiency fixes to a Band-Aid. She said, "you have to provide additional spectrum to deal with the wound to deal with the large capacity of bandwidth demands."

For more on the "spectrum" and its potential "crisis, check out this video report by the Times here.

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