Viewing Spectrum as a Natural Resource

by Jeff Wiener on March 1, 2012

Spectrum. Its one of the most important commodities of the digital age, the frequencies on which all wireless technology is built, and wireless carriers on both sides of the border simply can’t get enough of it. Such an insatiable desire for more bandwidth has led to an increased focus on the upcoming spectrum auctions on both sides of the border; auctions, carriers will tell you, that will do much to solve the current network issues and help build a stable, more powerful wireless tomorrow.

Now juxtapose those promises with thereport from Cisco released earlier this month estimating that mobile data usage with grow 18-fold over the next five years, which if true would mean that by the time the governments of both Canada and the US get around to putting the newly available spectrum to use we’ll already need more… and our spectrum woes will continue unabated.

While not a solution per se, in my mind it’s about time the world started viewing spectrum as a natural resource, finite and non-renewable (in that we simply can’t createmore usable bandwidth). Then, as with other such natural resources, we need to start demanding that companies who use spectrum learn how to do so with increased efficiency and care instead of simply holding their hands out and like Oliver, begging the government, “Please sir, I want some more!”

To be fair, wireless companies are trying to create ways to better use the spectrum at hand, as advancements such as LTE are designed to make more efficient use of the available wireless spectrum, allowing companies to eek out maximum usage from every inch of available frequency. But of course when people’s mobile data usage on smartphones and tablets continues to rise exponentially as well, these advancements do little to solve the problem.

Add to that the fact that companies like Verizon, AT&T, Bell, Rogers, and TELUS hold substantial spectrum assets already, owning much of the “beach front real estate” of the spectrum world in their respective countries–lucrative positions that all the aforementioned companies have used to stifle competition and drive out the little guys– and it starts to become clear that much of the problem is not only that these companies don’t have enough spectrum, but despite developments like LTE current network issues are just as likely caused by carrier mismanagement.  Truly a complex issue.

So what’s the answer? Do we restrict these larger players from the auctions to encourage competition despite the fact that they are the ones with the necessary resources to develop stronger, faster, and more reliable networks down the road, or do we open the auction door to all only to see the smaller competitors boycott the proceedings entirely (a point that will likely yield a smaller return for the governments holding the auctions)?

Whatever the answer (I will admit that I can offer nothing substantive) in my mind its time our governments realized the value of spectrum as a natural resource and stepped in to manage it like any other non-renewable resource in our respective countries, demanding that companies learn how to use the spectrum they have responsibly and doll out new spectrum in a way that benefits everyone, not just the big wireless carriers.

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