Is the Telecommunications Industry Running Out of Frequencies?

The answer is a bit complicated: yes, and no. There has been much discussion over the last few years as to whether the spectrum of frequencies used to transmit information wirelessly can continue to meet the ever-increasing demand placed upon it. As consumer demand for wireless technology—which includes everything from radio and television broadcasts to tweets and text messages—continues to grow, the capacity for the wireless infrastructure to match such demand may indeed be challenged. Fortunately, the telecom industry is hard at work finding new ways to overcome the demand for more broadcasting frequencies.

Understanding the Wireless Spectrum

In order to understand the significance of what has often been referred to as a wireless spectrum crunch, it’s important to first understand what this spectrum is and how it is utilized by various wireless service providers. In order to remain competitive and provide services that customers want, a typical internet service provider might offer a variety of services, such as high speed internet and digital cable. Because there is such high demand for wireless internet, most companies of this sort offer it in some capacity. Many companies offer services that enable customers to utilize their devices in as many places as possible.

The wireless spectrum is the actual infrastructure that supports all wireless transmissions. Everything from the signal connecting a wireless mouse to a laptop to the text messages beaming through the ether every day is transmitted over these frequencies. According to blogger David Goldman in an article written for CNN Money, “Global mobile data traffic is just about doubling every year.” Mobile technology uses much of the available spectrum. Because it transmits so much more data, an iPhone or an iPad would use far more of the spectrum than an ordinary cell phone would, and according to the same article, the increase of wireless traffic has grown astronomically since the iPhone was first made available to consumers. All of this consumer usage of mobile devices is contributing to a potential strain on the future availability of the wireless spectrum to everyone who utilizes it.

The Reality of the Crunch

While consumer mobile devices do use much of the available infrastructure, plenty of other technologies utilize the airwaves as well. As described by MIT Technology Review chief correspondent, David Talbot, “many sections of the airwaves that are reserved for TV stations and federal agencies go unused.” This means that much of the spectrum that could be better utilized isn’t being used at all. As another example, some of the spectrum of frequencies that get set aside for the TV stations in an area may be far greater than the actual number of channels in use. In other words, the limited spectrum availability that industry leaders have feared may not actually loom as menacingly as once thought.

How All of This Affects Consumers

According to New York Times technology reporter, Brian X. Chen, “even the inventor of the cell phone, Martin Cooper,” is sure that technology will continue evolving to meet the growing demands of consumers and the challenges faced by the wireless industry. The big rate hikes that were originally projected as a result of the “spectrum crunch” are probably not as big a threat as experts feared.

The pending spectrum “crunch” that many companies feared would be a crisis will probably be just another in the long line of challenges the telecom industry has faced. Companies may ultimately purchase extra space on the spectrum, as well as implement advanced technologies and techniques to accommodate consumer demand. Distributing frequencies within the spectrum more efficiently could also be a viable solution. Fortunately for companies and consumers, ensuring spectrum availability is likely a challenge that the wireless industry is capable of meeting.

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