Despite what broadcast industry lobbyists have heretofore claimed, CNN reported last week that spectrum in the United States is in short supply and mobile carriers will soon run out due to the demands of the ever-increasing number of portable Internet-connected devices in the marketplace.
These spectrum-hungry devices use huge amounts of data—from video programming to photographs to mobile calls. CNN said the shortage ultimately threatens to slow down data speeds and raise customers’ prices.
The all-news network did not exactly predict when the U.S. will hit the spectrum wall, but found few who do not think the day is coming soon. The FCC predicts a slight spectrum surplus today will turn into a deficit next year.
“Network traffic is increasing,” an FCC official told CNN. “[Carriers] can manage it for the next couple years, but demand is inevitably going to exceed the available spectrum.”
Broadcasters, lobbying to justify their own use of publicly owned spectrum, have claimed that some companies are “squatting” on surpluses of spectrum and are artificially creating a shortage. The CNN report cited a few such cases, but said that spectrum is quickly being drawn into the market for use.
The major reason for the spectrum crunch is consumer demand for “anywhere, anytime” video on mobile devices coupled with normal data usage for email and applications. Global mobile data traffic is doubling every year, and will continue to do so through at least 2016, according to Cisco’s Mobile Visual Networking Index, the industry’s most comprehensive annual study.
Apple’s iPhone uses 24 times more spectrum than a standard cell phone, while the iPad uses 122 times as much, according to FCC. AT&T told CNN that wireless data traffic on its network has grown 20,000 percent since the iPhone debuted in 2007.
This is why the federal government is looking to TV broadcasters and government agencies like NASA and the Department of Defense for prime spectrum. That spectrum is prime because it is relatively low-frequency and can travel long distances while penetrating buildings.
The shortage is global, but most acute in the United States—where there is a huge base of connected users. This country serves more than twice as many customers per megahertz of spectrum as Japan and Mexico, the next nearest spectrum-constrained nations.
This is why the FCC has been working to free up more spectrum for wireless operators and why Congress approved voluntary auctions that would allow TV broadcasters’ spectrum licenses be sold for wireless broadband use.
However, CNN said, freeing up that spectrum still won’t be enough to solve the problem. “There is no one solution that will address all the needs of the wireless industry,” Dan Hays, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers who specializes in telecom issues, told the news organization.
Even if a substantial numbers of broadcasters give up their spectrum, it will not fix the long term problem. It will only delay it. At the end of the day, using spectrum will cost users more money.