Spectrum Crunch

The issue of spectrum crunch to be financial: we're not talking about an imminent apocalypse scenario, but an issue for the cell phone companies.  Smart phones, it seems, might not actually be a viable technology for widespread use.  But concerned businesspeople and politicians are working to find a solution.* According to Sorry, America:  Your wireless airwaves are full by David Goldman on CNN Money, we can expect a lot of drops in the quality of cell phone service if this issue isn't solved soon.

The problem, known as the "spectrum crunch," threatens to increase the number of dropped calls, slow down data speeds and raise customers' prices. It will also whittle down the nation's number of wireless carriers and create a deeper financial divide between those companies that have capacity and those that don't.

Wireless spectrum -- the invisible infrastructure over which all wireless transmissions travel -- is a finite resource. When, exactly, we'll hit the wall is the subject of intense debate, but almost everyone in the industry agrees that a crunch is coming.

Another article by David Goldman on CNN Money, The spectrum war's winners and losers, makes it sound like the problem is that companies just aren't willing to do what it takes to provide their customers good service:

"Wireless operators have to decide whether they spend money acquiring new spectrum or building tens of thousands of new cell sites all over the country," says Dan Hays, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers' consultancy. "That's the big dilemma."

Both of those options cost billions. There's a third choice: consolidate. By merging, carriers can gain access to both spectrum and more cell sites.

That can also cost billions, but it's a turn-key solution.

I'm beginning to get the impression that without a better understanding of telecommunications science I'm not likely to get a solid handle on this issue.  But what it sounds like this article is saying is that the major cell providers, rather than trying to maximize their quality of service and compete for the customer base, are trying to use the spectrum crunch issue to corner the market and control the cell phone customer base in the US.

That article does contain some good news for me and my Droid, though:

Experts agree that Verizon (VZFortune 500) is in by far the best position, with ample capacity for the immediate future -- particularly if its spectrum deal with the cable companies gains regulatory approval.

This article from Reuters, Verizon tells Congress cable deals ease spectrum crunch, illustrates an attempt by Verizon to cut deals with Comcast and Time Warner, in order to share spectrum and work together.  It's currently being evaluated by anti-trust committees.

An article by Todd Shields on the Bloomberg Businessweek website, called Airwaves Sharing Proposed Between U.S., Wireless Industry outlines more about the ways in which the government is getting involved:

The administration has set a goal of adding 500 megahertz of airwaves to almost double the amount available for commercial use. Strickling’s announcement concerned an airwaves band with 95 megahertz, on which more than 20 U.S. agencies including each branch of the military conduct operations on more than 3,100 frequencies. [...]

Congress last month approved auctions of unused television airwaves for use by wireless services, another step aimed at alleviating the spectrum shortage. The Federal Communications Commission is working to devise auction rules.

The FCC has an encyclopedia entry on Spectrum Crunch. Their recommendation for what to do about it -- open up 500 megahertz by 2020, lines up with the above-mentioned plan President Obama is pursuing.  They point out that he made those promises in June 28, 2010, and reiterated them on February 10, 2011.  This gives me the strong impression that the government has a plan and course of action in place to handle the issue.

If I learn anything more about Spectrum Crunch, I'll update on here.  For now, personally, I'm not worried.  It sounds like the government has a plan, so it at least shouldn't be a problem for a while.  And maybe inside the next 10 years the nice folks at CERN will work out some method of perfect quantum cell phone signal or something.  I don't know.  All this stuff is very sciencey, and at this point might as well be magic.

*The fact that these two groups are the people most concerned leads meto suspect the viability of the sources I've found, but this is the information I have.