The worldwide spectrum crunch

Adlane FellahEarlier this month the CTIA asked the FCC to immediately identify and allocate up to 800 MHz of additional spectrum over the next six years. According to CTIA, "we are facing a perfect storm where demand may outpace supply." Is there a spectrum crunch? Wasn't the 2008 700 MHz auction with 62 MHz of additional spectrum, and the AWS spectrum with 90 MHz, supposed to solve the problem? That was before the iPhone really took off and caused customer usage to surge to unprecedented levels.

The globally harmonized spectrum identified below represents an important step in the worldwide development of IMT (International Mobile Telecommunications) systems:

  • 450-470 MHz band
  • 698-862 MHz band in Region 2 and nine countries of Region 3
  • 790-862 MHz band in Regions 1 and 3
  • 2.3-2.4 GHz band
  • 3.4-3.6 GHz band (no global allocation, but accepted by many countries)

Radio spectrum below 1 GHz is seen as prime spectrum for future mobile broadband wireless services because of its excellent propagation characteristics. Multiple countries have progressed from transitional analog television services in the traditional UHF bands to full digital broadcasts. As a result, sub -1 GHz bands are ready to be reallocated for new services.

The opportunity in the 700 MHz frequencies arose due to the long-planned shift from analog to digital TV in the UHF bands. The "digital dividend" is derived by the ability of digital compression systems to allow the transmission of up to 8 standard digital TV channels in the spectrum previously used by one analogue TV channel, using the most widely available technologies. The gain will be even more substantive if more advanced standards are being introduced (such as DVB-T2 for infrastructure and MPEG-4 for compression).

What is the status of the digital dividend in each region?

In Europe, the digital dividend initiative is poised to open up to 800 MHz of highly valuable spectrum. By 2012, television broadcasting services across the EU will have completed the transition from analog to digital technology. The switchover will free up a significant amount of high quality radio spectrum for the deployment of new services and technologies.

Gaining maximum advantage of this unique opportunity will require a coordinated European strategy going forward. At present, each country is following a different pace towards the switchover. For a detailed list of switch off dates by EU member countries, please visit this link. Under the governance of the United Nations, the World Radio communications Conference (WRC) in 2007 identified the following blocks of Digital Dividend spectrum for different regions of the world (according to the ITU's system of regional classification):

The European 790-862 MHz sub-band is in a different range than that identified in the US and Asia, which is 698-806 MHz. Swedish regulator PTS has issued a request for opinions on future use of the 800 MHz analog TV band. The authority wants to make this spectrum available as quickly as possible for mobile broadband services, though it is also working closely with neighboring countries, including Russia, to try to harmonize rules across the Baltic region. The PTS says demand for wireless broadband has increased significantly in recent years and, like many Baltic states, Sweden has the rising challenge of meeting this demand in its extensive rural areas, where the large cells and strong propagation of 800 MHz can be beneficial. The PTS hopes it can run an auction in mid-2010.

In June, the Finnish Ministry of Communications led an initiative to develop a unified approach to the digital dividend across the Baltic region including Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden.

Region 3 (APAC) is still undecided and could either follow the CEPT band plan or the US band plan. The US 698-790 MHz band was identified in China (after 2015), Japan, South Korea and India - all these countries have agreed to harmonize their spectrum with the Americas (region 2). Other countries in region 3 (APAC) follow the region 1 (EMEA) spectrum band (790-862 MHz).  Some neighboring non-EU countries use the 790-862MHz sub-band for other services (for example, military or aeronautical applications), which may prevent several EU states from making the sub-band available for wireless broadband.

Chile is poised to become the first CALA country to allocate 700 MHz for broadband wireless Internet services. Brazil, the largest South American country, balked at having 700 MHz included in the IMT family for domestic purposes because of broadcasting related reasons.

Region 1 (MEA) is following regulatory developments in Europe carefully. Many sub-Saharan countries have no TV in the 470-862 MHz band and are waiting for the availability of networks/terminals for mobile services.

Still, identifying 700 MHz for IMT throughout most of North America, Central America and South America as well as in populated and broadband hungry Asian countries such as China, India, South Korea and Japan represents a major triumph for the mobile broadband movement. Spectrum will remain a hot topic in the years to come and regulators will come under increasing pressure to facilitate spectrum access for doing everything it can to foster the proliferation of communications anywhere, anytime. Communication has a major impact on competitiveness and growth, and provides a wide range of social and cultural benefits. Regulators cannot ignore that.

Adlane Fellah is CEO and founder of Maravedis Inc. a market research and analysis firm that specializes in broadband wireless and WiMAX. Fellah has authored various reports on WiMAX, Broadband Wireless and Voice over IP (VoIP). He is a member of the Program Advisory Board for the WiMAX World conference and is an active member of the World Communications Association International and the European Broadband Wireless Association. 

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