Decade-defining moments for spectrum policy
Dec 30, 2019 by Martin Sims


Tags5G, 6G, CBRS, Huawei, iPhone, mmWave, TV whitespace, UWB

What were the key events which shaped spectrum management over the past ten years? We asked PolicyTracker staff and they gave a wide range of answers, including the growth of spectrum sharing, the US incentive auction, social networking going mobile and the banning of Huawei.

The rise of the smartphone

The first iPhone was actually debuted by Apple in 2007 although one can argue proliferation only took hold in the following decade, with the iPhone and Android-based rivals becoming ubiquitous. Smartphones enabled app stores and the shift of the most popular internet services to mobile screens. Strange to remember that the likes of Facebook used to be solely accessed via PC. It took a little while for the social network giant a while to get mobile right. Then hegemony beckoned. Likewise, other internet giants became mobile-first.

The smartphone/apps era drove data and video (rather than voice) consumption among consumers. It’s also interesting to note that this was a global phenomenon that created a huge demand for more frequencies in every country and is necessitating the move from traditional paired FDD spectrum to TDD-based networks. This reflects a radical shift in the nature of telecoms traffic. It’s hard to see the demand for spectrum slowing down, although the level of innovation at the device level has certainly slowed since those heady days at the beginning of the decade. – Richard Handford

Making a commercial success of spectrum sharing

We’ve written elsewhere about market mechanisms failing to deliver the additional bandwidth to cope with the rise of smartphone usage, and how this led to interest in spectrum sharing as a new way of liberalising the market.

Outside the unlicensed bands, previous spectrum sharing initiatives like UWB and TV whitespaces have failed to take off. I have been watching for signs of commercial success as an indication that we have actually entered a new era and this is not just another clever sketch on the spectrum policy drawing board.

I would like to say X was the decade-defining moment in spectrum policy where sharing became a money-maker. But we are not there yet. The best candidate is CBRS in the US: it has buy-in from some huge technology companies, makes use of the database technology pioneered in TV whitespaces and speedy access is available from next year both on a licensed and open access basis.

The flexibility of CBRS is appealing yet also a weakness. Even its best offering is inferior to cellular’s standard exclusive licence, so why settle for second best? Maybe we have reached the stage where exclusive licences have reached capacity or where dynamic access technology is sufficiently robust to be a workable alternative. If so, the results of the 2020 CBRS auction will be a good initial indication and the final proof will come if and when usage figures emerge.

Or maybe spectrum sharing is an example of the regulator’s curse. The brilliance of a policy may only become evident over a decade after it was enacted – like WiFi, long after the author has retired!

Like the awards ceremonies, we should also mention the runners-up in this category. The spectrum club approach in Italy’s 26 GHz auction deserves highlighting, but as this was bundled in with licensed access it is hard to know if companies would have chosen it voluntarily. In the UK, Ofcom’s sharing proposals for 3.8 -4.2 GHz and existing mobile bands were also notable but there isn’t the same groundswell of commercial interest as the CBRS Alliance. – Martin Sims

The US incentive auction: an economist’s dream come true

No-one wants turnips but everyone wants kale. I am a farmer, how quickly can I respond to this sudden change in culinary fashions? Maybe it’s coming to the end of the season, I’ve just sold all the turnips for a pittance and perhaps I can get the kale in the ground within a couple of months. Farming is a pretty dynamic market and can respond quickly to this change in demand patterns. No regulatory pre-approval is required and there is easy access to the main input: land.

Where spectrum is the main input, businesses are not so lucky. Only a small proportion can be bought or sold and regulation often prevents change of use, making it difficult to quickly match demand and supply.

Hence economists’ excitement about the US incentive auction: a market mechanism which balances the amount of spectrum assigned to a declining market – US terrestrial TV – with the amount awarded to a stronger market – cellular – based on the amount the actors are prepared to pay. US regulators deserve recognition for the innovative idea. The maths behind it are amazing and in practice, it was a great success.

However, the concept hasn’t been picked up elsewhere. The US is currently doing another incentive auction at 39 GHz, but the rest of the world seems to be sticking to the traditional method of spectrum refarming: working out compensation for the incumbents then re-assigning to the new users.

Why? There were special circumstances in the US, and for the other countries, the benefits of such a complex procedure probably don’t justify the time and expense. But hats off to the Federal Communications Commission for achieving a major milestone in spectrum liberalisation: maybe the next decade will see more countries ascend to homo economicus heaven. – Martin Sims

Huawei gets banned in the US

We have not chosen, as one might expect, a date since the election of Donald Trump as President of the US. Distrust of the Chinese giant in the US intelligence community goes back much further. One could point to a Congressional committee report in 2012 that ruled Huawei (and compatriot ZTE) posed a security threat and said US operators should not use their equipment. Trump’s contribution to the debate has been to encourage US allies not to use Huawei gear either.

The US government fears Huawei equipment could leave back doors open to vital infrastructure such as power grids for Chinese spy agencies. Such infrastructure is accessible via fixed and wireless networks.

The realisation that broadband is a vital piece of national infrastructure predates the current decade. High broadband penetration is viewed as a sign of economic progress as well as an enabler. But previously it was fixed. The rise of 4G over the last ten years means wireless is now considered part of every country’s backbone. And the US-China standoff shows it can tip over into geopolitical strife too. – Richard Handford

mmWave goes from pipe dream to reality

We knew it was coming. The talk has been of little else. WRC-19 seems to be the only thing I’ve been reporting on for the past couple of months. The conference managed to globally harmonise over 15 GHz of mmWave spectrum, including the controversial 26 GHz band.

Not so long ago, the use of mmWave frequencies for wireless communications seemed unimaginable. But demand for greater bandwidths and data rates has pushed engineers to innovate further.

mmWave spectrum, however, comes with increased system path loss. For reasons such as this, it remains uncertain how many of the so-called verticals and other users will actually benefit from these higher bands.

Lower frequency bands have also been regulated for decades, while mmWave frequencies could complicate things for some administrations. These bands call for innovative approaches when it comes to planning and pricing.

But the race doesn’t end here… the use of terahertz frequencies and 6G appears to be less than ten years away. – Manuel Marti