Is the spectrum crisis a myth?

Mobile operators like AT&T(s T) and Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) have used many a financial call and speech to spell out the impending doom that awaits us once they use up their precious frequency resources. They insist we are fast approaching a mobile datapocalypse where their networks will no longer be able to meet the enormous demands for mobile broadband. But are these claims of a spectrum crisis all red herrings? A couple of telecom industry commentators think so, and they’re calling out the carriers, claiming they are using scare tactics to justify their recent consolidation sprees.

Data growth isn’t matching earlier predictions

On Friday, DSLPrime and Fast News Net’s Dave Burnstein pointed out that AT&T’s yearly mobile data growth is only 40 percent, far lower than the 92 percent to 120 percent figures predicted by Cisco Systems(s csco), research firms and the FCC. Burnstein said that operators are raising the specter of higher data growth rates to scare regulators and lawmakers into giving them more airwaves and placing fewer restrictions on how they use them:

With growth rates less than half of the predictions, a data-driven FCC and Congress [have] no reason to rush to bad policy. Wireless technology is rapidly moving to sharing spectrum, whether in-building small cells, WiFi, White Spaces, Shared RAN or tools [that] engineers are calling hetnets – heterogenous networks. The last thing policymakers should do is tie up more spectrum for exclusive use; shared spectrum often yields three to ten times as much capacity.

DSLReports’ Karl Bode has been questioning the so-called ‘spectrum crisis’ for years and, riffing off Burstein’s post, Bode pulled no punches:

Anybody who warns of an unavoidable capacity crisis on wireline or wireless networks is lying in order to sell you something. That may be a blunt assessment to some, but it’s the only conclusion you can draw as we see time and time again that claims about a looming network apocalypse (remember the Exaflood?) violently overestimate future traffic loads and underestimate the ingenuity of modern network engineers. Fear sells. Drink orange juice or you’ll die of cancer. Get more insurance or you’re a bad family man. Vote for me or lose your job and see your grandma deported. Pay $2.50 per gigabyte or face Internet brown outs. Be afraid.
… As usual though, actually bothering to listen to and look at the data tells a different story. Nobody argues that spectrum is infinite, but buried below industry histrionics is data noting that there really isn’t a spectrum crisis as much as a bunch of lazy and gigantic spectrum squatters, hoarding public-owned assets to limit competition, while skimping on network investment to appease short-sighted investors. Insiders at the FCC quietly lamented that the very idea of a spectrum crisis was manufactured for the convenience of government and industry.

Underlying Burnstein and Bodes’ criticism is the fact that operators have been sitting on unused airwaves for years while simultaneously asking the government for more. AT&T(s t) and Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) bought their AWS in 2006 and have yet to deploy a single commercial cell site, though T-Mobile, MetroPCS and Leap Wireless(s leap) have launched multiple networks over the same airwaves. Sprint(s S) and Clearwire(s clwr) are sitting on a goldmine of 2.5 GHz frequencies, which remain unused in two-thirds of the country. Even in the markets where they have launched WiMAX some 100 MHz of their spectrum still lies fallow.
So is the spectrum crisis a myth? Are the operators simply playing on fear to gobble up more of the public airwaves? I agree with Burnstein and Bode in principle, but I don’t think the capacity crunch is pure fiction either.

Data growth is slowing but – hopefully – not for long

AT&T’s growth rate has slowed down but that’s because a good deal of its networks are already full, thanks to it being the first carrier to land the iPhone(s aapl). Between 2007 and 2010 AT&T saw a 5,000 percent increase in mobile data traffic, which led it to the highest smartphone penetration rate in the industry today at 56.8 percent. AT&T has such a large base of mobile data users already, its data growth rate was bound to slow down as long as smartphones are the primary mobile data driver.
But what happens when consumers finally find a reason to link their tablets to the 3G or 4G network? What happens when cars become connected? For each new wave of mobile data devices – each drawing more capacity than its predecessors – the cycle will repeat itself, launching huge surges in mobile traffic as each wave of early adopters gives way to the awesome force of the mass market.
Bode and Burnstein are right that a 40 percent yearly mobile data growth rate is much more easily manageable than a 100 percent growth rate. Even if new mobile networks like LTE and improvements to HSPA+ can’t take that new demand in stride, better use of unlicensed spectrum and Wi-Fi can easily make up the difference. Focusing solely on licensed airwaves is a wrong way to address the capacity crunch, as my colleague Stacey Higginbotham wrote last week when refuting a particularly fear-mongering column in The Washington Post.
But I don’t think we can count on that 40 percent growth AT&T is now experiencing to remain static, unless we maintain a very pessimistic outlook about the future of mobile broadband. Perhaps the operators should be providing us with better reasons – i.e. more sensible pricing plans — to adopt the connected tablet as readily as we’ve adopted the smartphone. If the operators can’t provide us with a compelling vision for a world of connected devices today, there’s little incentive for us to believe their predictions of a world facing a spectrum crisis in the future.
Image cortesy of stock.xchng user dimitri_c