This page is an archive from our previous website. Please check out our new website where you can read new COMMENTARY eNewsletters, TELL IT LIKE IT IS blog posts or Press Releases.
I wish I shared that optimistic view of wireless

The Google Theory of Spectrum

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Below is an exchange between Spencer Michaels of the Lehrer Report (shown on November 20 on PBS) and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google and Andy Rubin, director of mobile platforms. I have included it in this blog because I was also interviewed on the program and while they shot about an hour of video, only a few minutes was used. Spencer asked a question about wireless bandwidth and when I was taped, I had no idea that the question would be asked of the Google folks, but I have to admit that I am astonished at the answer given by Eric Schmidt and Andy Rubin.


What bothers me most is that this company is in a position to influence the 700-MHz auction in January and to end up with some of the spectrum. Not that I don’t welcome Google into the world of wireless, but I am very concerned about how its people view wireless spectrum. The bottom line is that they do not see it as a finite resource because they believe that, just as the Internet grew to handle more bandwidth demands, so too, will wireless technology.


SPENCER MICHELS: I talked to an industry analyst a week or so ago, Andrew Seybold, and this is what he said and I'm kind of curious as to how you would answer it. "Google's view of the wireless world is an extension of the Internet. And as much as I respect Google, the wireless industry can't be an extension of the Internet because wireless bandwidth is finite. It's a fixed resource and a shared bandwidth. The more people who use it in a given area the less data speed they have, so you can't take the Internet model and just move it to the wireless world. You have to change that model a little bit as you move forward." Is that fair criticism?

ERIC SCHMIDT: That's exactly the same criticism that was said about the wired Internet 15 years ago. That somehow the wired Internet would not scale, would not grow, that we would not learn how to build applications that could work for example in shared what are called hybrid fiber coax networks which you have at your home. The fact of the matter is that the industry can solve these problems and solves them very well. I completely disagree of the characterization that somehow the wireless network is going to be any different than the wired network. People want to use the Internet and they want to use it at home and in their office and when they're on the go and when they're on the airplanes. And they want to use the same powerful applications whether it's a personal device that they're carrying or on their desktop or at the beach.

SPENCER MICHELS: People want to use all the water they want to use, but there isn't enough water, so some people don't have enough water to water their lawns. That doesn't mean it's there.

ERIC SCHMIDT: Technology is different and the technology can create things out of nothing. The fact of the matter is that there's enormous spectrum becoming available through licensing programs, better radio design, faster computers, and so forth that in the next five or 10 years most of us will be carrying around devices that could speak on networks that are faster than the networks we currently use.

SPENCER MICHELS: Do you agree with the boss?

ANDY RUBIN: Absolutely. This is Moore's Law for wireless, or Moore's Law for spectrum. You know when we're on the wired Internet, in my day we had dial-up modems. Then we got DSL, then we got broadband, we're in the megabit speeds. Same thing happened to wireless. Remember those old analog phones where you'd get a dropped call every mile you traveled? Now we have digital phones, we have newer modulations that are helping us pack, densely pack, more calls in a single channel. And I'm just very optimistic that we'll have newer modulations throughout time that'll just get us faster and faster in the broadband areas.

SPENCER MICHELS: So Seybold saying that the bandwidth is finite, is it relevant?

ANDY RUBIN: Technology doesn't stand still.

I sent this off to another senior person at Google and got back a very well written email explaining why Eric answered the way he did. I did not ask for permission to use his comments here so I will paraphrase. Basically, he sees networks growing to accommodate the traffic, cells being built out by the millions, cell sites for existing networks being closer together, the use of micro, pico and femto cells, and networks such as Wi-Fi that will be available at shoeshine stands, gas pumps, subways and every hundred seats at a stadium.


In other words, as the amount of wireless data usage grows, networks will grow to keep up. He pointed out that during the short period of time that high-bandwidth applications such as Skype/VoIP, Earth, Maps, YouTube, etc. grew in number and popularity (about a year), Internet bandwidth increased. The bottom line from Google is that “the Mobiles as the new PC era is not facing a bandwidth wall.”


I wish I shared that optimistic view of wireless. However, having been in the trenches and worked with networks and new technologies for more than thirty years, I tend to be more of a realist (I guess Google would call this unenlightened). Yes, there are technology advances and yes, you can build cells close together and add more capacity on demand, but for each cell you deploy you must find a way to backhaul the voice and data from that cell. Mesh networks are one way to cut down on the number of backhaul links and being on a fiber ring is another, but I don’t believe we will be able to break Shannon’s Law. The goal of driving down the cost of wireless while making it ubiquitous is not realistic or even achievable while maintaining a cost structure that supports the necessary investments.


My other concern about this vision is how reliable this combination wide-area and local-area “network” will be. Will it be sufficiently robust to withstand power outages, high winds, floods, earthquakes and fire? Wireless network operators have been working diligently to make their systems robust and have made major investments to accomplish this. With each major disaster, we find fewer and fewer failures. But we also see sharp increases in peak usage of commercial networks by first responder agencies who use them to off-load their emergency communications networks and by the general public trying to reach their loved ones and friends.


What happens when the power goes out and stays out for hours? Will this combination network continue to function?


Google might be able to push technologies and build out a zillion access points to be used in conjunction with the wide-area networks, but how will it keep this type of network up and running in critical times?  Are we going to trade “unlimited” bandwidth for reliability? I, for one, hope not!

COMMENTS: This is an archived post. Commenting is no longer available.

Ronald Herman - 11/21/2007 15:40:00

I am posting while a passenger riding 70mph across I-20 to Mississippi for Thanksgiving - using my VZW rev a air card thinking back to Katrina and how long it took to restore poewer at my in-laws and the HUGE effort for the mobile operators to bring service back up inland MS.. see your point. Question in my mind is "what are the economics?" As lucrative as digital advertising has become and will likely flourish in mobile, the Google model appears ambitious; on par with the planned global deployment of a freeway-to-vehicle communications network. Perhaps a reality for my great, great grandchildren?

Mel Samples - 11/21/2007 17:40:38

IR-rational exhuberance.
Isn't that part of a corrollary to Moore's law - something like "even irrational exhuberance will not cause technology to change or be adopted any faster than the environment is capable of allowing it to happen"?
Yes, I expect that we will be able to get more bits delivered faster as a result of better electronics, better software, and more dense networks.
No, I do not believe it will be ubiquitous, cheap, consistent, reliable, AND capable of handling all the things that others, expressing their own IR-rational exhuberance, think they are going to get - at least not anytime soon.
Final thought. Using Andy Rubin's cellular example, it's been over 20 years getting from those "old analog phones that dropped every mile" to today's digital phone systems that still have some pretty significant dead-spots. So what has changed? Dropped calls are somewhat less frequent, but there are more consumer's out there finding them!
Have a Happy Thanksgiving Andy -

Andrew Seybold - 11/21/2007 18:27:13

My response to Ron first, Ron, exactly my point and I question the economics as well, but we will have to wait and see what happens in the 700 MHz auctions, perhaps they will purchase both the C and D bands as well as the unpaired 6 MHz and build out the world's first, and only wide and local area network!

Mel--Like your IR--and thanks for your Thanksgiving wishes--if Google's plan is to spend the next 20 years building out this wonderful, unlimited bandwidth network then I don't have to worry about it since I most likely will be retired or worse! In the meantime, I wonder what is going to happen when data hogs--using lots of streaming data services are all trying to compete with the bandwidth we do have--and it concerns me but then I am not nearly as optimistic as those at Google seem to be that science, technology and money can change either the laws of Physics or Shannon's Law

Chris Coles - 11/21/2007 19:47:11

Andy, you are too close in to the existing paradigm in the USA. Your carriers have been shielded from many fast moving developments by their strategy of keeping innovation at arms length. Take the subject of the Intelligent Vehicle Highway System where broadband is available throughout the highway. This has been on the agenda in Europe and Japan for decades. Much of what is only just arriving in the US has been available for decades in other countries. A good example is the use of GPS in vehicles. Japan has had every car off the production line with a GPS since the very start of the system. They were more than a decade ahead with digital cameras and no one else has shown the slightest sign of catching them up. My advice would be for you to take a trip to Shinjuku a suburb of Tokyo and look at the numbers of young people using their phones in ways that are not seen in the US. Apple have been very astute in placing Wi-Fi in the iPhone. Yes, you are correct about the limitations of the bandwidth. But the answer is not the bandwidth, it is the innovations that will overcome the inherent problems caused by that limitation.

The major carriers, shielded by a backwards looking FCC , more interested in control than driving innovation in services have not been anything like sufficiently exposed to outside innovation. The US has lost sight of the wonderful benefits of a strongly competitive and innovative business environment. I believe Google see this and that is where their confidence derives.

As a European, I have to wait for Christmas for my next holiday, but notwithstanding that limitation, I do wish you and yours a great Thanksgiving.

Andrew Seybold - 11/21/2007 19:56:23

Chris, thanks for the comments--I have been to Japan many times and among my clients are several of the major network operators in Japan so I know what is going on there. How can you say that Europe is competitive when the EU, and Countries before them, require only a single technology per band? GSM/UMTS and now DVB-H, I contend that Japan, Korea and North America is well ahead of Europe when it comes to competitive markets because they are not constrained by the technology dictates of government. I am having a real problem with your idea of comptitiveness when on my last trip to Europe I had to pay 24 Euros for a 24-hour Wi-Fi connection, and my phone bill, using a UK sim was about twice as high as I pay in the US.
I don't think that our carriers are shielded, I think that your carriers are. Hence the patchy UMTS coverage in Europe. Instead of being able to convert their 900 MHz systems to UMTS they have had to build new systems at 2100 MHz, as you know a huge difference in coverage.
So if you are not going to celebrate Thanksgiving with us I won't wish you a happy Turkey day and I am certainly not going to wish you Merry Christmas until at least December 15th.

Nick Ruark - 11/21/2007 20:50:56

With all due respect to Mr. Schmidt et all, may I respectfully remind
him that there are many major differences between a wired and a
wireless network? Technology is indeed advancing, and, has certainly
changed a great many elements in our lives and the world. However,
the laws of physics, particularly those concerning RF and wireless,
remain firmly in place. Last I knew, no one had figured out how to
completely circumvent them yet, but I know some are working very
hard at it. :>)

May I further suggest that it may be far wiser for Google and company
- prior to purchasing ANY wireless spectrum - to invest a few of their
many dollars and enroll Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Rubin in a Basic Radio
(that's the original name for the resource that everyone now calls
wireless) 101 course? (IMHO, Radio 101 should be a prerequisite for
any IT professional who wants to become involved with wireless IT) Upon
successful completion of the course, perhaps each of them will have a
clearer understanding of the many differences between a wired (IT)
and wireless (RF) network that RF professionals have been attempting
to share with them (and that their own IT professionals may NOT have)

( you suppose my suggestion will help bring the IT and RF
guys/gals a little closer to listening, understanding, and actually working
with each other through some much needed and shared mutual

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Nick Ruark

Andrew Seybold - 11/21/2007 20:54:06

Well said NIck--and I would like to suggest that anyone who is interested in spectrum or two-way radio subscribe to the free SIGS that Nick is hosting on Yahoo--the first is the Private Wireless Forum and the second is Spectrum Matters--see you all there!

Chris Coles - 11/22/2007 04:10:17

Andy, you still do not get it. This is not about spectrum, it is about finding innovative ways around the spectrum problem. When the first wireless brick came on the market, you had exactly the same potential spectrum problems as you have today. The spectrum will always remain a fixed asset, yes. But it is the major advances in the technology inside that "brick" that have permitted all the advances. If you say the back end will be a bottleneck, you may have missed the news that an Australian researcher has just demonstrated Terabit capacity over fibre that last year was limited to a couple of hundred Megabits.

That brick is now a very powerful computer in its own right and in the same way that software for the home PC has developed, the same will happen, is happening now, with the wireless phone.

For the record, back in the early 1980's I was credited with creating the most innovative computer information distribution system seen up to that time by the UK government and the Minister of State for telecommunications, Kenneth Baker, asked to come along and open the office on the strength of it.

It is innovation that will win the day, regardless of the, yes, very real difficulties; presented by spectrum capacity restraints.

Andrew Seybold - 11/22/2007 21:14:16

Chris--First on the Fiber side of things--you are assuming that fiber is available to most wireless sites--and this is just not the case--it may be some day but it certainly is not today.
And--as for spectrum--"finding ways around the spectrum problem" is great and with each advance the engineers find better ways to accomplish that goal-but the fact remains that there are laws of physics and Shannon's law which must be delt with.
Yes I believe in innovation but I have not yet seen anyone able to burst through the laws of physics!

Neale Hightower - 11/26/2007 12:53:26

I guess it's understandable that sitting in front of a camera, Eric Schmidt had to be so optimistic. It's certainly no time to say, "gosh, we hadn't thought about that..." but his comments certainly suggest that this is exactly what has happened.

Having been lobbied, lectured, and hectored by innumerable “unlimited wireless capacity” advocates for the last to decades, it’s no surprise to hear such things. But history is as instructive as physics are unforgiving of irrational exuberance. In each case I was told, “You just don’t understand”. Indeed, I didn’t.

There seem to be three bases for this unrealistic exuberance:

1. Underestimating the cost to build and operate a network:

Successful [wired] “web” entrepreneurs [ISP’s] have for the entire life of the dialup and internet world operated without directly paying for access. Further, the ISPs may not realize it but they benefited from the failure of the fiber frenzy in the late 90s. Fiber capacity was heavily overbuilt to sell long distance service, and was finally sold off for pennies on the dollar that these entrepreneurs didn’t make on their investment. That’s just to say that there’s an unrealistic view – even of fiber economics that probably fuels the parallel optimism about spectrum and network costs. All else aside, they are underestimating the cost based on wireline economics – which from the ISP’s point of view is already unduly low.

Quote: "Basically, he sees networks growing to accommodate the traffic, cells being built out by the millions, cell sites for existing networks being closer together, the use of micro, pico and femto cells, and networks such as Wi-Fi that will be available at shoeshine stands, gas pumps, subways and every hundred seats at a stadium."

Someone should talk to the victims of Metricom about this one. The problem here is that there are so many sites needed and so much backhaul needed that you can’t afford the network in the first place. While the network does offer capacity, it offers a lot of capacity where little or none is needed. Talk to the airlines about flying near-empty planes around because they have the asset.

2. Transferring wired solutions into the wireless world. In the wired world, there’s always a solution: More MIPS and / or more fiber.

Quote: “I completely disagree of the characterization that somehow the wireless network is going to be any different than the wired network.”

I’m as optimistic as anyone about technology and its ability to squeeze out additional capacity from a scarce resource – spectrum. But the wireless world is different in two areas: first, wireless has an additional “DC” power constraint that wired networks generally don’t have.

One must conserve battery power – and that’s the arch-enemy of high speed and quick network connectivity. Turn your laptop on and turn the WiFi radio off. See how long the battery lasts. Now, recharge the battery and turn the WiFi on. Compare times. Wireless networks are different because the terminals need to conserve battery power. One cannot just pour on the MIPS (in DSP) or ping the server every microsecond without a battery the size of an office desk.

Secondly, when one runs out of “spectrum” in the fiber world, one merely lights up another [fiber] strand. And given the previous comment about fiber entrepreneurs, the cost is pretty minimal. But one can’t just light up another “wireless spectrum” [old engineering jokes about the “negative frequencies” aside]. Spectrum is like land and dinosaurs. What there is – is all there is – and there are limits. I could wax eloquent here for hours, but I’ll restrain myself.

3. The idea that there’s some way to get “free” spectrum directly or indirectly. The quantity of usable spectrum is finite, and largely known. The limits may be pushed, to an extent, and spectrum can often be used better than it is today, but there are still a number of practical limits.

Quote: “The fact of the matter is that there's enormous spectrum becoming available through licensing programs, better radio design, faster computers, and so forth that in the next five or 10 years most of us will be carrying around devices that could speak on networks that are faster than the networks we currently use.”

Andy’s right about Shannon’s law. But that’s only one of the fundamental spectrum limitations. The other limitation is equally difficult. Signal strength at some distance from a radio (base or moble) is driven by the frequency. Higher frequencies lead to lower signal strength at that distance. The environment (buildings, trees, humans) all reduce the available signal strength and limit what can be done with it. And building penetration is usually worse as the frequency goes up. The amount of spectrum that is suitable (not to mention available) for practical use is limited. That won’t change – even with technology. Here’s a tip for the undue optimists: When there is no signal, it doesn’t matter how much you process it.

Quote: “Technology is different and the technology can create things out of nothing.”

The only thing that technology creates out of nothing is unrealistic expectations. Networks cost money to build and operate. When one builds a network to provide good coverage, reliability and reasonable throughput, it costs a lot more than people initially estimate. It’s good that Google has a lot of cash available. They’ll need it.

3. Am I being too pessimistic? Does anyone remember CDPD? Or Metricom? Or Cameta? Or Muni WiFi Networks (Philadelphia, San Francisco, etc). All of them fell for one or more of these delusions about “free” networks, their ability to “make the market”, and the ability of technology to solve any problem. I could regale you for hours, but again, I’ll restrain myself.

As my good friend Jim Hobbs first said, “You can’t bend physics”.

Andrew Seybold - 11/26/2007 13:11:35

Neale--I appreciate your comments--especially since you are a veteran of wireless of long standing. You are right on the money here!

David Boettger - 11/30/2007 14:36:06

I personally don't think that it's the government's job to foster innovation in wireless. But federal spectrum allocation policy unquestionably keeps most of the useful spectrum in the hands of just a few players. One outcome of this is that competition -- and therefore innovation -- are minimal. (Sorry, Dick Lynch, but to claim that cellular in the US is "highly competitive" is laughable. Just because it's relatively more competitive than Europe doesn't mean that it's genuinely competitive; it just means that Europe is insanely non-competitive.)

A second outcome is that the entrenched players aren't forced to change their operating models: Who needs more cell sites or more efficient technology when you can just buy more spectrum? Indeed, at the moment, the only innovation in the US in terms of operating models is being done by MetroPCS, which has managed to build an all-you-can-eat cellular network with only 5 MHz of radio spectrum AND STILL MAKE MONEY. It CAN be done; it's just that the big, old, slow cellcos don't *want* to do it. And they're not forced to do it because of the lack of competition in the industry.

Along comes Google -- it had to be Google or someone like Google; spectrum allocation policy overwhelmingly favors those with enormously deep pockets -- which is not a slave to 30-year-old operating models, and which is trying to do something innovative. Perhaps they really don't grasp the magnitude of the zillons-of-cell sites problem (though I seriously doubt that) but they are moving in a direction that the entire industry has no choice but to move in: With a finite amount of spectrum and a growing amount of traffic, more and smaller cells will be required.

I, for one, applaud Google. Given the cellcos' essentially unbreakable control over federal spectrum policy, Google is probably the only entity that can deliver the kick in the pants that the cellular industry so badly needs.

[I have no affiliation with Google or MetroPCS.]

Chris Coles - 11/30/2007 16:47:21

Wireless is founded upon some exceptionally solid science that demands its professionals keep a close eye on very fixed points of reference. Those at the top have well earned the respect they enjoy; both within the industry and with those of us at present outside.

I disagree with the idea that it is not the governments’ responsibility to encourage innovation. The United States built its great economic success on the back of innovation, but this is no time to try and argue for any change in what is about to happen with next years auction.

Some of us live in an entirely different world full of the inherent uncertainty of innovation. New thinking always demands acceptance of failure. Innovators face failure every day and do not make progress with everything they work at and that in turn brings in a quite different working environment. Innovators are never sure of anything other than, by trying something new, they might have stumbled upon a better way forward with whatever they are working on. Google is a very good example; they were not the first to try and create a search engine. Their success has become a legend and what is exciting is that it is an innovator, Google, that has deep enough pockets to take this forward and the announcement of recognition of their responsibility to take a lead lends me encouragement for a better future for many, much smaller innovators, that have had to stand at the wireless sidelines in the past.

Google will raise your eyes to look up from your established certainty to see what might be something new. That is always as much as anyone with new thinking can hope for; the rest is in the lap of the marketplace, the final arbiter of all our ambitions.

Andrew Seybold - 11/30/2007 20:17:41

Both of the last two postings are interesting, David, I would probably disagree with you about specrum issues--there is a finite amont of spectrum and in fact, the wireless companies always end up deploying fewer cells sites each year than they want to because of the process set up by the local cities and counties and the "fear" of the public about the unsitely towers and the medical issues--sometimes I wish that those who lived in California would just take a drive through middle America and see that the towers are visable everywhere!
Chris, as usual your comments are good--the issue is if a new business model is really what it will take to change the way we do business in the wireless industry, I for one, see my new blog, believe that without proper constraints--either by pricing or by mandate, we will run into a number of problems when it comes to available bandwidth.