2013 is big year for regulatory policy setting for sharing spectrum, for creating new unlicensed spectrum, and for the mobile industry.
The mobile and wireless world is dominated by regulators and is dependent on smart, innovative regulation of spectrum. There is only a limited amount of spectrum and the job the regulators around the globe, and here in the U.S., is to ensure that the spectrum is efficiently and effectively used by those licensed to use that spectrum.
At first it was easy to license spectrum. There were ship-to-sea uses, then commercial radio, then TV, then public safety two-way, then point-to-point microwave, followed by satellite uplinks, then starting in 1983 cellular mobile, and in the 1990s unlicensed Wi-Fi.
Wireless regulation was relatively simple. Auctions came and went. We all assumed that the mobile industry had all the spectrum it needed after the multiple auctions from 1993 to 2008. Our cell phones worked well (for voice) except in most rural areas. We had our laptops connected to Wi-Fi access routers using unlicensed spectrum. We considered Wi-Fi as free because we installed Wi-Fi routers without the help of mobile carriers, and we paid for our own backhaul to connect to the Internet.
Then on June 29, 2007, Steve Jobs forever changed our landscape with the introduction of the iPhone (News - Alert), which delivered both mobile carrier data and Wi-Fi data to the same device. Our wireless world was changed again on April 3, 2010, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPad. Suddenly, we had a laptop replacement delivering data over mobile networks using macrocell towers, and at home using our own installed, unlicensed, non-carrier, Wi-Fi access points.
Unlicensed spectrum has been the savior for the mobile carriers’ data crunch problems. Mobile data caps ranging from 2Gb to 5Gb (enough for one movie) were imposed for data received on their licensed spectrum. The caps generally do not apply when we use our own unlicensed spectrum on non-carrier Wi-Fi. Radios using Wi-Fi leveraging unlicensed spectrum far exceed the use on licensed mobile networks. One study, from Strategy Analytics, suggests there are 440 million homes worldwide that have Wi-Fi access points, representing 25 percent of the world’s homes, with 80 percent of the homes in Korea with Wi-Fi. By 2016, the prediction is that a staggering 800 million homes globally (42 percent) will have Wi-Fi access points -- all using unlicensed spectrum. There are reported to be 7 million FON-enabled Wi-Fi access points using Wi-Fi data sharing. Seoul, South Korea, has 10,000 Wi-Fi access points in the city delivering free Internet using unlicensed spectrum.
As a result of the success of unlicensed, the FCC (News - Alert) has strongly supported the expanded use of unlicensed, TV white spaces spectrum. In the FCC’s new TV Incentive Auction proceeding, which is auctioning off TV UHF channels for mobile licensed use, the FCC Staff Summary stated that the FCC is committed to maintaining portions of the UHF TV spectrum for unlicensed use:
In the incentive auction proceeding, the FCC proposes to make a substantial amount of additional spectrum available for unlicensed uses. … A significant portion of this spectrum will be available on a nationwide basis, which is important because there currently is little or no white space in the TV bands in parts of many major markets
At the February 2013, TMC-Crossfire Media Super Wi-Fi Summit in Miami, announcements were made by the white spaces device makers that commercial devices were rolling off the factory lines. These white spaces radios use unlicensed, lower 700mHz spectrum, formerly occupied by UHF TV stations, to broadcast through trees, terrain, and walls, just like TV signals. The new white spaces unlicensed spectrum could dramatically increase the efficient use of the TV spectrum if demand for use is similar to the efficient, highly used 2.4gHz Wi-Fi spectrum.
The FCC is committed to growing the amount of unlicensed spectrum. The FCC is also making a shift toward using unlicensed, shared licensing, and lightly licensed for other spectrum. Moving in the new direction of allocating spectrum for more unlicensed uses is the equivalent of turning around a massive oil tanker. The major mobile carriers and mobile investors want certainty in knowing that the spectrum they are going to spend billions building out with DAS, macro cells on towers, microcells, and small cells is cleared for exclusive licensed use. Mobile carriers have communicated their preference for exclusive licensed spectrum to Congress and the FCC.
However, the massive amount of unlicensed, shared use of spectrum, such as Wi-Fi’s 2.4gHz and 900mHz, enjoyed by 120 million U.S. smartphone users looms over regulators and cannot be ignored. A study by Juniper Research states that today 63 percent of the traffic fromsmartphones and tablets is over unlicensed Wi-Fi. This amount of traffic isprojected to increase to 90 percent by 2015.
FCC Commissioner Clyburn recently noted that mobile carriers were saving $25 billion in deployment costs by using Wi-Fi offload. Start-up companies like Republic Wireless (recently reviewed by Walt Mossberg in the WSJ) are building business models focused on using primarily unlicensed Wi-Fi for mobile voice and data at a jaw-dropping “$19/month unlimited talk, text & data.” The Republic Wireless service uses a Motorola Android (News - Alert) smartphone. Thus, basic mobile voice and data is moving to unlicensed spectrum.
While unlicensed spectrum is used more and more, licensed spectrum is not being efficiently used, as reported by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. PCAST in 2012 reported that that only 20 percent of beachfront licensed spectrum in the “most congested cities” was actually being used. The FCC is considering unlicensed and spectrum sharing methodologies in several proceedings this year:
The TV Incentive Auction docket
The White Spaces Alliance filed comments on Jan. 25, 2013, noting that Wi-Fi has 84mHz of dedicated unlicensed, and efficiently used spectrum (2.4gHz-2.4835gHz) and that the FCC should allocated a nationwide unlicensed spectrum of a sufficient amount within the TV Incentive Auction band plan.
On Jan. 31, 2013, the FCC announced a workshop for small cells and “spectrum sharing” for 3.5gHz (3550-3650mHz). The idea is that 3.5gHz would be used for spectrum sharing for backhaul to the millions of new small cells to be deployed by carriers in the next infrastructure build outs.
5gHz Unlicensed Spectrum for Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure
On Jan. 9, 2013, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (News - Alert) said that the FCC would be looking “to unleash up to 195mHz of spectrum in the 5gHz band.” He said: “This would be the largest block of unlicensed spectrum to be made available for expansion of Wi-Fi since 2003.” The FCC opened the 5gHz Unlicensed Spectrum rule-making docket on Feb. 21, 2013.
PCAST Spectrum Sharing Report
Last July 2012, PCAST recommended that the federal government share 1000mHz of spectrum using unlicensed or shared spectrum methods. The FCC’s Technical Advisory Council recommend on Dec. 10, 2012, that the FCC studying methodologies to implement the PCAST spectrum sharing proposals.
There are difficulties with moving in the unlicensed direction. It will not be easy. For example, in 2003 the FCC gave transportation agencies the license to use 5.850-5.925gHz for dedicated short-range communications, used for the Connected Vehicle program. But now with the new 5gHz proceeding, that exclusive use may be removed. In the same way, in 2008 and 2010, the FCC gave the white spaces industry the full shared use of UHF and VHF TV spectrum in geographies where the spectrum was not used by a TV station, but now will be taking some of the spectrum back in the TV Incentive Auction proceeding.
On the constructive side, regulators in the U.K. and European Commission have been advocating various methods of sharing that are between unlicensed and exclusive licenses. The methods are Authorized Shared Access and Licensed Shared Access. The white spaces database providers connected to cognitive radios allow for this new type of ASA and LSA sharing that could meet the demand for “certainty” for mobile carriers and at the same time allow the spectrum to be more efficiently used than under an exclusive license regulation.
A regulatory wireless revolution is taking place. However, turning around 20 years of exclusive licensed policy will cause industry and investors to question the past model of building infrastructure. The providers will require new thinking about cost-effectively deploying mobile infrastructure where the spectrum is shared or unlicensed. Policy innovation inevitably creates uncertainty. But, as we all know from using our iPhones, Android phones, iPad, and tablets, mobile and wireless innovation is giving us a fuller life and one that can potentially, dramatically improve our economy and our world.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi