7 Technologies to Solve the Spectrum Crisis

Is the sky really falling?

The sky is falling in the mobile broadband world in part because demand appears to be outstripping the supply of spectrum available to provide Facebook or streaming video on our phones and tablets. However, Chicken Littles are ignoring some very promising technological solutions that could help turn the spectrum crunch into a capital spending bonanza by telecommunications companies. Here are seven solutions that can make our airwaves go further. Carriers will still have to figure out how to keep their margins intact as the usages of their spectrum outstrips the current cost models around providing it.

ZTE’s Software Defined Radio: Wednesday the Chinese equipment vendor said it was building a software defined radio, which means that the radio can frequency hop using software since the radio functions aren’t built in hardware. The SDR aspect makes a radio more versatile, and ZTE in its announcement said it will use anti-interference technologies to deliver twice the uplink capacity for future HSPA-plus networks, such as the type of network T-Mobile USA is deploying. Boosting capacity and doubling the amount of data that consumers can send over the same amount of spectrum helps operators deliver more bits over their existing airwaves. A definite win.

Rajant’s Mesh Networking: Rajant is a contractor that has built mesh networks for government customers and oil companies. Its software and gear can be programmed to take advantage of multiple available networks such as Wi-Fi, government bands and cellular signals and it weaves all of that into one unified network offering that can handle rapidly changing conditions on the fly such as a network node failure. The company, which has been around since 2001, is only now trying to market its technology to mobile operators and cable providers, but it does help use all of the available spectrum more efficiently by hopping from a channel with interference to another one seamlessly and by making the network redundant. Today Rajant showed off a portable base station and mesh network designed to be deployed over water, a notoriously difficult spectrum environment.

Carrier Aggregation: Several equipment vendors have shared ways that they can bond a carrier’s disparate chunks of spectrum into a unified block. This renders existing spectrum holdings more productive and may make previously less desirable spectrum a bit better. Plus, adding another chunk of spectrum also adds more capacity to a network.

Wi-Fi: Operators are already using Wi-Fi offload to help shed traffic from their constrained cellular networks, but anything that can make the process seamless and more customer-friendly makes it more likely that consumers will use the less congested option. Forbes reported this wekend that an Israeli startup WeFi is working with U.S. carriers to deliver automatic Wi-Fi offload when customer’s devices are in range.

White Spaces: The effort to promote the idea of White Spaces broadband or Super Wi-Fi has languished with the large manufacturers that championed the effort staying oddly silent now that the FCC has approved it and set up some rules around it. However, having a chunk of unlicensed spectrum in the 700 MHz band is a wonderful opportunity for deploying long-range Wi-Fi style networks that could carry mobile data traffic. Perhaps carriers will operate these Super Wi-Fi hotspots as a means of providing even more offload but still garner a revenue stream, or perhaps municipalities or other organizations will step up.

Pico and Femtocells: Sure, we may have said that femtocells are on a road to nowhere, and with the wrong business model that’s still the case. However, when it comes to reusing spectrum, femtocells and picocells are one of the best options for carriers to improve their actual cellular networks without offloading customers to cheaper Wi-Fi or unlicensed alternatives. One of the things holding deployment back is the business model, but another is how complex it becomes to manage a network after deploying hundreds or thousands of tiny base stations. The network architecture itself must evolve, but vendors are already taking steps to ensure that evolution happens. Now carriers just have to buy into it.

LTE Advanced: For a low-down on how the next iteration of the 4G wireless technology standard will help, check out my detailed post on LTE-Advanced, but the short version is this standard will help cram more bits into each megahertz of spectrum as well as help operators more effectively reuse their spectrum.

Sure, there are plenty of other methods that operators can use to make sure we’re optimizing rather than hoarding our mobile spectrum, but many of those require investment on behalf of the carriers. And with the threat of mobile data use rising while overall average revenue per users drops, carriers may be happier to find faster access to spectrum than to more efficiently use the airwaves they have.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Alice Popkorn.