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Spectrum explained

Are we using our smart phones so much that we’re actually beginning to clog up the airwaves? We seem to be headed that way. Americans are using tablets and smart phones to send more wireless data than ever and wireless companies are beginning to say that their networks might not be able to handle it.

That’s why the wireless industry is always talking about spectrum. Now the spectrum we’re referring to here is the electromagnetic spectrum, which are invisible waves that carry everything from gamma rays to visible light to perhaps this video you streaming it to a tablet. Different signals operate on different frequencies or to put another way, electromagnetic waves vibrating at different speeds.

The roots of how we use spectrum actually go back to the 1920’s when radio networks were first established. Back then, the problem was that there were so many signals traveling through the air that devices had a hard time picking out which one to listen to.

Since spectrum is a public resource, federal government decided to step in and regulate it. It said that if you were sending certain kinds of signals you needed to have a license. And not only that but you would be restricted to a certain band of frequency.

Think of this regulation like a highway where everybody’s given an assigned lane. Cellphones are given a lane that’s between 300 and 3,000 megahertz. Now when the road lines were painted we were all driving around in tiny little coups and sedans but now we’re basically driving eighteen wheelers. The average smartphone uses twenty four times more data than an old fashioned cellphone. And a tablet uses 122 times more data than a cellphone.

The federal communications division says that the demand for spectrum could exceed supply by 2013. Wireless companies are really concerned about this. So what their solution is to buy as much spectrum as possible, either by buying rights to more of it or by buying other companies that already have those rights.

Of course this gives them the competitive advantage which causes wireless companies to fight with each other to get the government to block each other’s deals. But wireless companies do actually agree on one thing however.

They want the government to do a lot more for them. They’d like the opportunity to buy the licenses to underuse spectrum, like for broadcast television or for government use and the government actually likes this idea. It would love to be able to auction off this underused spectrum and keep some of the proceeds and the companies giving up the licenses would get the rest of the money.

 Now some veterans of the wireless industry think all this focus on getting more spectrums is beside the point. New services have always caused a scramble for spectrum. It happened with television, it happened with early cellphones and the fact is we always figured some new technology that helped stave off the shortage.

We see this happening today. Those new 4G networks?  Way more efficient than 3G networks. And you could also build more cellphone towers or, you could design phones that are smarter at picking signals out from the spectrum or you could piggyback on existing technologies like wifi or broadband networks.

It is true that our new gadgets do pose some new challenges but these problems have much more to do with choices we’ve made about how we use spectrum than to some unchangeable attribute of the electromagnetic waves, which in fact is good news because it means the day we actually run out of them is probably much further away than it seems.

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