If you think city streets are congested and badly planned, consider the air surrounding them. It is infused with data, pouring forth from phone masts, radio towers, wi-fi routers, bluetooth, taxi radios, airport beacons, even remote control garage doors. Our lives have become so saturated with data the fear is that communication networks could grind to a standstill entirely - it’s known as the spectrum crunch. Yet could we find ways to avoid this looming data-geddon?
The problem is that so many wireless devices nowadays use the radio spectrum to transmit and receive data. When this spectrum was first divided up between different users, the authorities treated it like empty land. Swathes were allocated for different uses, including radio, television, navigation, astronomy, maritime services, aeronautics, military and of course, telecommunications. However, some of these industries grew much faster than others. For instance, while much of the military spectrum remains unused, the part reserved for telecommunications is bursting at the seams. For instance, while much of the military spectrum remains unused, the part reserved for telecommunications is bursting at the seams.
The situation for telecoms became so dire that in 2012, London faced the very real threat that its wireless communications network would fail under heavy load. During the 2012 Olympic Games, British communications regulator Ofcom had to borrow part of the military spectrum to ensure the audio, visual and sensor feeds didn’t grind to a halt as the athletes were sprinting across the finish line.
Our demand for data is poised to rise in the coming years, so Ofcom and many other communications regulators worldwide are concerned. “There's a significant risk of a spectrum crunch by 2020,” says Simon Saunders, director of technology at Real Wireless, an independent consultancy based in Pulborough, UK. “If the problem is not addressed, in local areas with intense demand there is a risk everything will slow down.”
Many governments, then, are looking for ways to alleviate the problem before the wireless signal to our electronic devices starts failing. So far, the principle strategy has been to find more spectrum. That’s not easy. As a finite resource, we can no more create extra spectrum than we can create extra land. Instead, spectrum allocated to one party can be reassigned to another, but this process involves evicting the current tenant, and that isn’t something to be taken lightly. Many countries were given much-needed breathing room by the switchover to digital television, which freed up the 800MHz band previously allocated to analogue TV. But this shift required all televisions to be augmented or replaced.
The body responsible for regulating the radio spectrum, the International Telecommunication Union, will meet in 2015 to discuss the problem at the World Radio Conference in Geneva in 2015. There, it’s likely that the assembled parties will flag additional parts of the spectrum they want to see freed up for telecommunications. Some countries are already forging ahead. In the UK, for instance, Ofcom is eyeing up some of the under-used military spectrum to sell off, with the proceeds going to the Ministry of Defence. And in 2012, the US Federal Communications Commission approved a plan to encourage broadcasters to sell under-used parts of their allocated spectrum to other users. The first of those auctions is to be held in January next year, when the 10MHz “H” band is expected to go for at least $1.56bn.
However, there are only so many land grabs and sales available. “Additional spectrum may double capacity in the next ten years,” warns Saunders, “but it will not be enough to feed demand.”
In a report published this month, Ofcom warned that data demand in the UK could increase 80-fold over the next two decades, driven primarily by the increase in mobile broadband.