Operators' best efforts ease, but don't solve, spectrum pressures

editor's corner

CTIA Wireless 2012 was rife with new product and service announcements. VoLTE, RCS, backhaul, small cells, Wi-Fi offloading and DAS dominated more than a few conversations that I had. Despite all of the industry innovations and palpable enthusiasm, there was no denying the 10,000-pound elephant in the room: spectrum.

Many of the products and services being discussed at CTIA had spectrum conservation as the focal point. Whether or not you think Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) is a spectrum hoarder as T-Mobile USA is fond of alleging, the truth of the matter is that overall commercial spectrum resources in the United States are quickly being outstripped by the mobilization of the Internet, and everyone knows it.

Operators are racing to keep up. Kristin Rinne, senior vice president of Network Technologies at AT&T Labs (NYSE:T), said during her keynote speech at FierceWireless' The Path to 4G event, "Even with all the advances that we've made and those we intend to deploy in the future, we continue to be challenged by the exponential growth that we're seeing in mobile broadband, and that is going to require access to more spectrum."

She noted that during 2011, AT&T built out 700,000 sq. miles of mobile broadband coverage, deployed 1,400 new cell sites and 80,000 new antennas, added 30,000 carriers to its base stations and installed 200 DAS. Further, 80 percent of the operator's data traffic is running over enhanced backhaul, meaning Ethernet backhaul, the bulk of which is fiber, though some is still copper.  

But all of that cannot make up for the fact that spectrum is the lifeblood of mobile networks, and some are in danger of running dry, at least in areas of high mobile broadband usage. Rinne cited CTIA figures regarding potentially usable spectrum in the pipeline. Japan has 400 MHz waiting to be used, and Germany recently auctioned 350 MHz. The UK has a bounty of 310 MHz waiting for new owners. In the United States, there is all of 50 MHz in the pipeline.

Yes, incentive auctions are in the works. But will the "incentives" be enough to lure broadcasters to give up their spectrum? And NTIA has identified 95 MHz that could be made available for commercial mobile services. But it could easily take a decade to free up those frequencies, and the process might require some funky spectrum sharing before they're finally liberated from the government entities that currently use them.

AT&T has calculated that it can take seven years from the beginning of a spectrum identification process to the time an operator secures frequencies and deploys service on the spectrum. Will time run out for mobile operators trying to deliver mobile video, social networking, games, messaging, voice, etc., in our nation's most spectrum-congested areas?--Tammy

P.S.: Keep an eye out next week for FierceBroadbandWireless' exclusive On the Hot Seat Q&A with AT&T's Kristin Rinne.