Spectrum sales now big business, but are we running out of airspace?

April 2, 2013
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As the nation goes crazy for faster and faster mobile data, carriers are running out of capacity. Now goes the hunt to find more wireless spectrum to push those Instagram photos, WhatsApp chats and Skype video-conferences on.

There is a “looming spectrum crisis,” as FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has been claiming since he took office in 2009. With mobile users becoming more data-hungry than ever, carriers are scrambling to secure so-called airspace. The target: TV stations and networks. With increased demand, however, spectrum allocation is becoming more and more expensive, and government is trying to encourage media networks into auctioning off their allocation, with some of the proceeds then being used to establish a public safety broadcast network.

The move does have its detractors, though. While the FCC, CTIA and Cisco Systems believe that broadcast companies should give way to more data-oriented usage of the UHF spectrum, some lobby groups — which include the National Association of Broadcasters — believe this move will hamper the media industry’s own efforts to develop its own mobile technologies, such as streaming.

Even as broadcasters are finding their assets and licenses suddenly skyrocketing in value, the so-called “spectrum grab” might not exactly offer a balanced view of the industry, in which broadcast companies are seen as the old guard, while telecoms companies with their 4G networks are going to usher in new frontiers in communication.

It’s not all about network capacity, too. Even re-allocating UHF channels 32 to 51, for instance, would entail major costs on TV stations operating on these frequencies. Shifting bands (say from UHF to VHF) will require physically changing antenna infrastructure and even relocating transmission stations, due to the different nuances between these bands.

Some groups, mostly in the academe, are on a wait-and-see philosophy, and are actually conducting studies to look into how to better use what existing capacity networks have, without the need to acquire additional spectrum.

As mobile users, do we have to fear that day in which our data access will slow down to a halt because network capacity can no longer support services? It’s an ongoing debate, and a feature on Varietyย tries to shed some light on the matter. One thing we can learn from this debate is that our increasing demand for mobile access is already taking a toll on a resource previously thought to be abundant. It’s thin air, after all — or actually just an invisible portion of the light spectrum.

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