The End of Spectrum Scarcity

New technologies and regulatory reform will bring a bandwidth bonanza

11 min read

Radio spectrum may be one of the most tightly regulated resources of all time. From cellphones to police scanners, from TV sets to garage-door openers, virtually every wireless device depends on access to the radio frequency wireless spectrum. But access to spectrum has been chronically limited ever since RF transmissions were first regulated in the early 20th century. Now that's all about to change. New technologies that use spectrum more efficiently and more cooperatively, unleashed by regulatory reforms, may soon overcome the spectrum shortage.

Since the 1920s, regulators have assumed that new transmitters will interfere with other uses of the radio spectrum, leading to the "doctrine of spectrum scarcity." As a result, every wireless system has required an exclusive license from the government. With virtually all usable radio frequencies already licensed to commercial operators and government entities, the upshot has been, in the words of former U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair William Kennard, a "spectrum drought." We've become accustomed to seeing every new commercial service, from satellite broadcasting to wireless local-area networks, compete for licenses with numerous existing users, including the government--all of which guard their spectrum jealously. Cellular phone service, for example, was demonstrated in the lab in 1949 but not deployed until the 1980s, largely because of licensing delays.

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The Cellular Industry’s Clash Over the Movement to Remake Networks

The wireless industry is divided on Open RAN’s goal to make network components interoperable

13 min read
Photo: George Frey/AFP/Getty Images

We've all been told that 5G wireless is going to deliver amazing capabilities and services. But it won't come cheap. When all is said and done, 5G will cost almost US $1 trillion to deploy over the next half decade. That enormous expense will be borne mostly by network operators, companies like AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, and dozens more around the world that provide cellular service to their customers. Facing such an immense cost, these operators asked a very reasonable question: How can we make this cheaper and more flexible?

Their answer: Make it possible to mix and match network components from different companies, with the goal of fostering more competition and driving down prices. At the same time, they sparked a schism within the industry over how wireless networks should be built. Their opponents—and sometimes begrudging partners—are the handful of telecom-equipment vendors capable of providing the hardware the network operators have been buying and deploying for years.

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