tech tuesday: spectrum squeeze

Depending on which news sources you follow you might have come across a phenomenon called spectrum squeeze. Usually, if it gets coverage it is because some telco is shifting the blame of their service deficiencies onto it. There’s usually some quip in there about how the government needs to open up more of the spectrum in order to meet demand. Other than that the spectrum goes unnoticed by most, unless of course, you’re a friend of mine, in which case we probably email about it because we’re dorks.

It was recently announced by the Commerce Department and US National Telecommunications and Information Administration they were going to take a new approach to spectrum maintenance. That’s what started this whole conversation (and how now it’s ending up on the blog). The gist of what the NTIA is proposing is that competing uses of spectrum can coexist within the same bandwidth, thus supposedly saving time and money in the expansion process.

A rainbow of …

Spectrum is short for the electromagnetic spectrum which is the range of all possible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. It is used for everything from traditional broadcast radio to x-rays. It affects your everyday life, particularly since every OTA connection point you have to the internet uses spectrum, and you have more devices using it all the time, such as your phone and tablet, in-car GPS and satellite radio, laptop, etc. That’s in addition to the hundreds of connections you don’t think about happening around you using it – businesses, governments, etc. That’s a lot of competition that continues to grow exponentially.

Spectrum is finite. That’s just the way it is. It’s a law of physics. And, for all intents and purposes the amount of information that can travel through / on [sic] it (as I don’t know what the technically proper language is in this case) is finite as well.

Eventually, we could run out of available spectrum.

My Phone and My Car

That being said, we have a conundrum similar to that of the automobile right now. And you can see this parallel a few ways.

Cars although they are privileges are widely viewed as some kind of inherent right, at least for Americans. It is engrained now in our national identity that personal transportation is a necessity and any attempt at limit one’s ability to have or utilize personal transportation is met with outraged resistance. One has a better chance of over-charging for access to actual basic needs like water (wait, we already have this!) than taking away cars.

Connectivity is taking on a similar tone as cars. The current White House administration has made it a priority to enable all Americans with broadband internet. Furthermore, you’d be hard pressed to find many people who aren’t married to their cell phone these days and what they are doing with the devices is typically less talking and more other connected actions.

The adoption of cars occur(s/ed) at an exponential rate as more and more people valued them as a necessity. However, cars require roads. Roads, or rather the space to place usable roads, is inherently finite. Different types of roads have different uses, as a residential street functions differently than a super highway. Cars aren’t the only vehicles using roads. There are trucks, vans and buses, motorcycles and scooters, bicycles, skateboards and people, etc. There a set of rules that dictate generally how the competing users of the road function with one another. Usually, that works well, such as yielding to an emergency vehicle with its lights on. However, when the volume of vehicles exceeds the available road space it causes congestion which in turn ruins every driver’s experience regardless of the kind of vehicle they have or their perceived priority in using that vehicle on the road.

Consider the parallel. Roads are Spectrum. The assignments of different parts of the spectrum are like the different types of roads. There are a general set of operating principles for each spectrum range like the laws governing roads. Spectrum itself is inherently limited just like space for roads is. Cars are personal devices using spectrum. All the other types of vehicles are the varying users of spectrum. Thinking about your own experiences with cars and roads can you see how increased users of spectrum impact it?

Let’s try another example, knowing what we know about cars from above. Cars run on gasoline. Gasoline is made from petroleum. Petroleum has lots of uses, only one of which is making the gasoline that is running cars. It’s used in plastics, to run machinery, in chemicals, etc. Petroleum is finite (at least the natural version of it for now). As the demand for petroleum changes the availability and thus the price change with it. These variances effect the users of gasoline, even if their individual gasoline consumption doesn’t change. As more users of petroleum compete for the finite resource it drives the cost up, for everyone. Regardless of how much they use or why they are using it, the base measure, such as gallons of petroleum, increases in cost.

In this example Petroleum is Spectrum. The different types of uses of petroleum are akin to the different uses of spectrum. The different users of spectrum such as telcos and the government are like the gasoline refiners and the plastic makers. The driver of the car is like the cell phone user.

Chicken Little

There’s a lot of crying about spectrum squeeze, which is basically the reaction to the phenomenon outlined above. Scarcity both impacts the cost and the experience of utilizing a finite resource.

Everyone knows the story of Chicken Little, right? Or maybe it’s Henny Penny. Doesn’t matter what version you know, the bird thinks the world is coming to an end because something fell on its head. It’s a lot like chicken little running in hysterics claiming the sky is falling. Not that the voices warning of spectrum squeeze are wrong, but they’ve misappropriate the current issue to that in the same kind of way Chicken Little mistook the apple (or acorn, or whatever your version says) to be the sky falling on him.

We’re still a long way away from actually being squeezed out of the existing spectrum though. The real problem right now isn’t the finiteness of the spectrum but the infrastructure that exists to tap it. If the Chicken Littles saw the deficiencies that actually currently plague the spectrum landscape at present for what they are, the finite nature of it wouldn’t seem nearly as daunting and be raising such red flag.

Spectrum mismanagement is one of the biggest problems. This is in two parts, the assigners and the assignees.

The assigners haven’t distributed spectrum efficiently and oversight of the assignees is lax or in-existent. It might be easy to take shots at the government for this as it is such a hip fad to blame everything on the Feds to begin with. It is only partially their fault though. Technology is constantly changing which regularly impacts how spectrum needs to be managed and the changing landscape of competition for it necessitates some semblances of impartiality and fairness. Its a jumbled mess of old license owners and older technologies with new ones, government, industrial and personal usage for all kinds of services, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The assignees haven’t managed the spectrum they’ve been given. Every telco that’s asking for more spectrum is doing it because it’s cheaper to carve out additional space by getting it from someplace else than it is do develop the space they have with better technologies. If their network backhaul and other resources were really optimized they wouldn’t need more space. But, it’s more expensive to upgrade than it is to buy right now. And, much like in real-estate there’s this perception that the more you have the better off you are, so there’s a race to gobble up as much as possible even if you aren’t going to use it right now or aren’t utilizing the space you actually already have.

Can’t you drive a hyred?

Remember the cars analogy above? Petroleum is becoming more expensive due to increasing competition and its inherent scarcity. Car drivers have a few choices in light of this. They could stop driving, but that probably won’t happen. They could keep driving the way they are and accept the increased gasoline cost. Or, they could reduce their consumption by utilizing newer and more efficient technology. The choice between the former and the latter comes down to return on investment. Which costs more, paying more per gallon and using the same number of gallons or using less but paying more to do it.

Just like hybreds can be prohibitively expensive due to their upfront cost technology upgrades for spectrum access can have the same problem. Even if the longer-term value is there, investing in the new technology takes the cost, plus the time to achieve the value and the drain on resources to implement and maintain it. Actually, imagine if you bought the hybred AND you had to keep your old car too. that’s what it can be like for some of the changes.


so, while i see spectrum squeeze being a problem, its only part of the overall problem with spectrum. the accessing the spectrum in the most efficient way is more of a concern, particularly if the bad habits now that are leading to the gobbling up of the airwaves continue when there really are no new airwaves left to be had.


About thedoormouse

I am I. That’s all that i am. my little mousehole in cyberspace of fiction, recipes, sacrasm, op-ed on music, sports, and other notations both grand and tiny:
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