A spectrum debacle: ensuring access for all

The digital landscape is evolving at an unprecedented pace, yet the airwaves, the veins of wireless connectivity, are not an endless resource. But do the veins need better treatment?

We need the free bands for the LoRaWANs and the WiFi, but the spectrum is not free, and there is no new free spectrum being announced, as you may have noticed. I was trying to find facts on the numbers of WiFi devices in the world, and the best guesstimate was 1 billion Wi-Fi networks and a growth rate of 150% to 200% over the past decade. This means we have increased from 300-400 million to a billion users. Yet, we have not increased spectrum at all.

Are we running out of wireless space?

In the realm of any wireless technologies, frequency allocation and management play pivotal roles. Allocating new bands for wireless is not a fast process; the decision-making process starts at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency. The ITU meets every four years at the World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC) to update the international radio regulations. As ITU encompasses nearly all countries globally, representatives from almost every corner of the earth participate in this decision-making process. Although adhering to ITU’s radio regulations is voluntary, they are practically followed by all countries due to their regulatory impact on neighboring countries’ radio usage.

The lengthy journey of frequency planning

Regarding long-term frequency planning, the journey from idea to reality through ITU takes about 10-12 years. The ITU meets every four years, and these meetings are preceded by in-depth studies to make informed decisions. The democracy involved is so extensive that it almost leads to inefficiency. For instance, if a country identifies that the load on mobile broadband is a critical issue, it can raise the matter this year. The issue will be considered for a decision in the next meeting, and then it takes another 4-5 years until the hardware is available to subscribers in a fully deployed network. A case in point is the so-called expansion band for 3G, the 2.6 GHz band, which began discussions within ITU in 1997, was decided in 2000, and started to be rolled out in 2009.

Apart from WiFi, which is per se using free bands, accompanied by BLE, for example, in the landscape of IoT connectivity, LoRaWAN stands out due to its utilization of free frequency bands. As with WiFi, LoRaWAN solutions significantly reduce licensing costs and simplify deployments for both users and service providers due to the free spectrum. But for these devices as well, resources are limited. No new spectrum is being allocated for LoRaWAN at this point.

The urgent need for collaboration

This framework for frequency allocation and planning underscores the complex interplay between international coordination and national implementation, highlighting the intricate balance between rapid technological advances and the methodical pace of regulatory progress. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for stakeholders ranging from policymakers to technology developers and industry leaders, ensuring they navigate the complexities of the tech world effectively.

Already 12 years ago, I tried to spread this message to even out the competition in the market. I wanted more free spectrum for better competition. The scarcity of new frequency bands sanctioned by international bodies is a formidable challenge. The risk is that exacerbating the strain on existing bands could undermine the rise of new technologies and new use cases using free spectrum.

Mitigating airwave congestion

Even mobile operators can use free spectrum; innovations like the 802.11u standard enable mobile broadband load balancing through wireless networks, facilitating seamless roaming and connectivity.

The 2.4 GHz band is already saturated with Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth devices, resulting in tangible performance degradation, in direct contradiction to the aspirations of the development in the market. Even with LoRaWAN, there are areas with degradation due to air congestion.

In the United States, smaller broadband providers account for a portion of connectivity, fostering healthy competition. In contrast, the EU’s reliance on major mobile operators to expand infrastructure may not be sustainable in the long run. Opening up more unlicensed frequency bands could foster competition while providing vital support for load balancing in future wireless networks.

The airwaves represent a democratized resource, akin to the air we breathe or the blood in our veins. Yet we use it as we use other resources in the world; we congest the air with more and more networks. It is like knowing that fries are a diet that will clog your veins and still keep eating them. The absence of a coordinated international strategy for expanding free bands threatens to stifle innovation and hinder progress. Organizations like the LoRa Alliance and Wi-Fi Alliance must step up their advocacy efforts to ensure a sustainable future for unlicensed frequencies.

Time for collaborative action

The imperative for action is clear. By fostering collaboration among stakeholders and advocating for the allocation of new frequency bands, we can pave the way for a more equitable and efficient wireless ecosystem. The time to act is now, lest we find ourselves constrained by the limitations of yesterday’s infrastructure in the rapidly advancing landscape of tomorrow.