“Smaller, faster, more powerful” has been the IT industry’s mantra. Recently, this phenomenon also has been evident in the cellphone market, where users now carry powerful, compact devices from place to place.
But with users downloading more complex information, the possibility has arisen that service provider networks may not be able to support such transmissions, a shortfall that the federal government may soon need to address.
Indeed, as soon as networks are upgraded to offer more capacity and greater functionality, new handsets are designed and developers create new, bandwidth-eating content. Recently, this cycle intensified with the delivery of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android, two devices designed more for surfing than for talking to co-workers.
Clearly, with users sending more information over cellular networks, carriers need to add more bandwidth. However, meeting that challenge is much more complicated on wireless networks than for wired ones, because the former is hamstrung by bandwidth limitations.
Wired connections can add capacity as long as a carrier wants to lay down new lines. Wireless networks, in contrast, can only function in certain bands of spectrum that correspond to the frequency ranges of the electronic waves moving from a sending system to a receiving system.
Complicating matters is the fact that in addition to devices such as cellphones, items like medical equipment, game controllers, and home entertainment remote control systems rely on wireless transmissions. Chaos would ensue if the vendors of all of these devices were allowed to transmit information in any band they desired. Instead, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) divvies up the available wireless bandwidth among the different applicants.
Recently, the CTIA , a vendor-led consortium of wireless service providers, petitioned the FCC to open up 800 MHz of bandwidth in six years, so cellular networks could handle the growing volume of data transmissions.
But there is a significant problem: All but a sliver of 10 MHz of the possible bandwidth has already been given to other wireless services, so where will this bandwidth come from?
A few unsavory options remain. “The FCC could identify services that are no longer widely used and reallocate that bandwidth,” says Victor Schnee, president of consultancy Probe Financial Associates. Such a transition recently occurred when cellular carriers bought bandwidth that had been used for analog TV transmissions. However, at the moment there are no underused applications getting ready for retirement, and: “The last two auctions took more than 10 years from start to finish,” notes Scott Bergmann, CTIA’s assistant vice president, regulatory affairs.
Technical advances could emerge. In general, the higher the wavelength -- say, 200 GHz as opposed to 10 GHz -- the more difficult it is to build wireless sending and receiving systems. Devices now operate in the 300-GHz range. Theoretically, vendors could build devices capable of operating in the higher ranges, but that would require new techniques.
Also, television broadcast channels are separated by small swaths of unused spectrum called "white space," which limits interference from other stations. Vendors such as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) have been pushing the FCC to open up white space for wireless data transmissions and have developed test devices to show how it could be used. However, TV broadcasters oppose this idea, and the effectiveness of these new products is unclear.
So, the FCC is caught in a conundrum. The ongoing spread of the Internet points to more data being transmitted over wireless links. Eventually, more bandwidth will be needed to keep users happy.
But where it will come from is a mystery -- at least at the moment.
— Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who has been dissecting technology and business issues for two decades.