Wireless bandwidth: Are we running out of room?

As mobile devices proliferate, wireless networks are edging near capacity -- a potential threat to price, performance, and innovation.

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Broadcasters. Wireless carriers complain that TV and radio broadcasters got their spectrum for free back in the day. Broadcasters counter that they've invested billions in it since then. ITIF president Rob Atkinson and other experts believe the solution lies in spectrum incentive auctions -- in which broadcasters that wished to sell bandwidth would be compensated by telcos purchasing the spectrum. "Only 10% of Americans get their television over the air, yet broadcasters have more frequency than all four major carriers combined," Atkinson points out.

The broadcasting community counters by saying wireless carriers still have lots of unused methods for more wisely exploiting the spectrum they do have. And more to the point, broadcasters don't want to give up spectrum because they want to be involved when mobile video service becomes common. "If data is the central driver," National Association of Broadcasters COO Chris Ornelas told the CQ Roll Call panel, "let's talk about how broadcasters can be part of that."

Regulators. When it comes to authorizing auctions, the FCC complains that Congress is dragging its heels, and vice versa. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said, "If we don't authorize incentive auctions, we'll get swamped by an ocean of demand and risk losing the competitive advantage to lead the world in innovation."

Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), a member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, faults the FCC for moving too slowly in addressing issues within Congressional bills. At the CQ Roll Call panel, he said, "Their response time has to be faster."

At the same time, Stearns wants to wait for the results of a spectrum inventory being conducted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the president's principal adviser on telecommunications and information policy, in order to ensure spectrum is distributed fairly.

Public safety advocates. The Department of Defense controls extensive swaths of the wireless spectrum (by some estimates, as much as Verizon and AT&T combined), and insists that national security trumps commerce. Public safety officials tend to agree -- they want spectrum for interoperability of all public safety radio channels to avoid a repeat of the 9/11 communications breakdown, when police, fire, and medical responders were communicating on different frequencies, making coordinated rescue efforts difficult.

To counter that situation, the FCC is in favor of allocating a chunk of spectrum, known as the D Block, to public safety use (FCC white paper.pdf).

How IT copes with the crunch

For the most part, IT execs seem content to let the spectrum drama play out as they cope with more immediate wireless concerns.

At Madison, Wisc.-based CUNA Mutual Group, about 25% of the insurance company's 4,000 employees use smartphones to access email remotely. Mark Winger, the company's vice president of IT for product and administration, recommends being "open and collaborative" with carriers; CUNA Mutual has relationships with both AT&T and Verizon. "We share our issues and they share theirs, and they provide us with test devices to gauge how their network works."

At SBLI USA in New York, VP of IT Paul Capizzi has gone the opposite route for the insurance firm's 100 employees, scaling down to one carrier (Verizon) over the last five years. "It's like a friends and family plan, where everyone shares minutes." Capizzi has adjusted the plans so that individual employees get a certain amount of minutes, but with the flexibility that if one person goes over and another goes under, it all averages out. "The last thing you want is have someone come in and say, 'You went over on your data plan.' "

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