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What’s the Future of the Wireless Spectrum?

The FCC and industry executives discuss challenges associated with growing citizen demand.

by / July 16, 2012
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. Photo courtesy of the FCC.

The FCC initiated a brainstorming session with industry experts on Monday, July 16, about the future of wireless spectrum.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski introduced the forum in Washington, D.C., where a series of panelists spoke about various topics related to spectrum allocation and data usage. Genachowski said U.S. industry is on track to roll out the 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) download speed standard at scale — and that unlicensed spectrum is expected to be made available soon. However, significant challenges lie ahead, he said.

The increasing amount of data consumed by mobile devices is forcing the FCC to think about how to apportion spectrum blocks in these changing times, and what rules will govern how the public and private entities use it.

The U.S. and the rest of the world are shifting away from using voice networks in favor of data networks, which are more data-intensive and thus require more spectrum.

Al Jette, the head of North America industry environment for Nokia Siemens Network, said studies show that downlink usage — downloading — on LTE networks is growing more than uplink usage — uploading. This perhaps is unsurprising since it mirrors consumption patterns on wireline networks. Jette said for future allocations of spectrum, the FCC should consider adding more downlink spectrum.

A Nokia Siemens study outlined that downlink usage can range from six to 13 times greater than uplink usage, with a few exceptions during major events — such as the Super Bowl, when many users are uploading video.

“People are watching more video on their devices, causing more downlink traffic,” Jette said.

Stephen Wilkus, a panelist from Alcatel Lucent, cautioned that these usage trends are susceptible to change, so it’s uncertain if downlink will remain dominant. “Past demand is no guarantee of future results,” Wilkus said.

Spectrum is allocated and measured within units called resource blocks. According to Jette, the number of resource blocks assigned depends on traffic and channel quality. One major issue with resource blocks is determining what sizes these blocks of spectrum should be and how they can change in the future.

Peter Gaal, the principal engineer for Qualcomm and one of the panelists, said there might be new ways to allocate these blocks of spectrum. But every block allocation has to be supported by industry standards, he said.

Furthermore, there are concerns about possible interference because newly available spectrum is sometimes in close proximity to existing spectrum.

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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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