The Myth and Reality of Spectrum Scarcity

Is there a looming shortage of wireless spectrum, or do we have plenty? Yes.

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There's a lot of puzzling talk about wireless spectrum all of a sudden—we have plenty of it; we have a looming shortage. AT&T bought T-Mobile for its spectrum; AT&T has plenty of spectrum. We should auction the TV broadcast spectrum before there's a spectrum crisis; there is no crisis, but we should auction the TV spectrum anyway.

As our magazine name would suggest, we at IEEE Spectrum have a particular interest in, well, spectrum. One of our most popular articles of the past decade is a 2004 feature story titled “The End of Spectrum Scarcity,” written by two telecom experts who are also policy wonks, Greg Staple and Kevin Werbach. In it, they speculated that new technologies such as smart radios would pack more signals into our existing spectrum—a bit like the way your broadband provider keeps increasing your data rate because better routers can push more data through the same cable. (Spectrum—the magazine—isn’t a research journal, but that article, by the way, has 114 citations in Google Scholar, Google’s new search engine for academic publications.)

Steven Cherry’s guest is one of those two coauthors, Kevin Werbach. He’s still well positioned to sort myth from fact in all that puzzling talk about the radio spectrum. He’s an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business, a technology analyst, policy maven, and an organizer for Supernova, an annual technology conference. During the Clinton administration, he served as counsel for new technology policy at the Federal Communications Commission, and in 2008 he cochaired a detailed review of the FCC for the incoming president’s Transition Project.

This interview was recorded 14 April 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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