Going Back In TimeMonday, October 26, 2009
I have several clients who are interested in what I wrote about certain topics in the 1980s and 1990s, so I have been spending a considerable amount of time reviewing articles I wrote during those years and identifying the ones that meet their needs. Next year is also the 20th anniversary of our Wireless Dinner (first held at Comdex) and I have also been indulging in some reflection on the past. I have to admit that my project is probably going more slowly than it should since I can't help but stop and read some of the material and compare it to where we are today.
In many cases, I wonder what, exactly, we have been doing for the past ten or more years-I might write the same article with few changes today. I recently re-read one I wrote for the April 1995 issue of Andrew Seybold's Outlook on Communications and Computing. The mid-1990s were transition years for us, moving from a focus on Personal Computers in the 1980s to mobile computers and wireless in the 1990s.
At the time I wrote this particular article, the Personal Communications Service (PCS) spectrum was about to be auctioned, public safety was fighting for more radio spectrum and the ability to provide interoperability between agencies, and I believed that the TV industry should fork over some of its channels for other forms of wireless communications. This was before broadband wireless was envisioned and before 3G technologies were practical, when we were using voice services and under 20 Kbps of data for our mobile requirements.
It was before the RIM BlackBerry when we had three data networks in the United States trying to figure out how to promote wireless data services. It was a time when the consumer was discounted as a customer for wireless data services and only business customers were important. Needless to say, we have come a long way since then. However, many of the points I made in this article are still being considered today, and in many cases we are no nearer to having answers to our wireless problems than we were thirteen years ago.
I thought you might enjoy going back in time with me. I have one copy of every newsletter I have written since 1985, and hopefully someday I will be able to have them digitized and up on the web. There is a lot of information in them, a lot of history, and some bad calls I've made over the years. I thought the IBM/BellSouth Simon would be a real hit, and I did not understand the importance of the first Palm device.
On the other side of the coin, I did understand that CDPD was not the be-all-end-all technology it was purported to be, I did not believe WAP browsers would be the way to access the mobile Internet, and I did recognize that RIM and its BlackBerry email device would change the world. All-in-all, I've been more right than wrong.
Times have changed since I wrote the following article-or have they?
The Spectrum as a Resource
I would like to amplify a point I made about spectrum in last month's Personal Communications Services (PCS) article. The following discussion was prompted by reports that some within the Republican Party are organizing to dismantle the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), citing that there is no longer a need for a governmental organization to regulate spectrum and our communications services. I hope that those who agree with them will take the time to find out more about the overall workings of the FCC, the issues involved in managing the limited resource that is the radio spectrum, and the need for some form of regulation.
First, it is important to understand that radio spectrum is a finite resource. It has always been finite in size. Because of advances in technology, more of the spectrum has become usable over the past fifty years or so, but it is still finite.
For these reasons, the type of wireless service and the distance that needs to be covered generally determines the frequency range of the service. Another factor that has come into play is that as technology has improved, additional portions of this spectrum have become available for use. For example, in the early days of two-way radio communications for public service and business radio, the available spectrum was a 20-MHz section in the 30 to 50-MHz range. Over time, as technologies were developed, additional spectrum was allocated for this usage in the 150-170-MHz range, then in the 450-470- MHz range and, finally, in the 800-900-MHz range.
New Technologies, New Bands
As each improvement in technology made possible the use of more of the higher end of the radio spectrum, the Federal Communications Commission allocated its usage and determined which type of service was entitled to how much. The FCC had to balance the need for public access broadcasting (television and radio) with the need for public safety and business two-way radio usage, amateur radio needs, and public radio access (mobile phones, etc.). This task was complicated by the fact that when a given region of spectrum was technically accessible, federal government agencies had first crack at the allocation. The organization that represents federal agencies, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), is permitted to lop off portions of radio spectrum for "government use" before passing what is left over to the FCC to allocate for use by other groups.
Because spectrum allocations were made over time, users do not have single chunks of contiguous spectrum. Rather, they have been allocated a number of smaller chunks located at various points in the radio spectrum. Television channels are a good example of this. The first TV channels to be allocated (2 through 6) were in the 54 to 88-MHz band (Very High Frequency, or VHF).
However, before the television industry experienced a demand for more channels, the FM broadcast radio band was established just above TV channel 6, and the commercial aircraft industry needed and was allocated channels above the FM broadcast band. Amateur radio operators have been experimenting with radio communications for many years and, in many cases, developed new technologies. They needed higher spectrum and were allocated bands above the aircraft systems (144-148 MHz). And public safety and business users asked for, and were allocated, more channels in the 150 to 174-MHz range. By the time the TV industry proved that it needed additional channels, the spectrum allocated to channels 7 through 13 wound up in the 174 to 216-MHz range.
Today's Lay of the Land
Today with the wireless spectrum fully allocated up to the 300-GHz range, frequency allocations resemble a patchwork quilt with pieces for government usage, public access, public safety, business, and public wireless services. The last allocation of spectrum for Personal Communications Services (PCS) required that other users of this spectrum be relocated. Until the PCS auctions, this band of spectrum was used for point-to-point microwave transmissions. With the new technologies available today, this same spectrum can now be used for handheld voice and data systems. Thus the FCC reviewed the spectrum allocations and with some not-so-gentle "nudges" from various lobbying organizations, it decided to reallocate the 2-GHz band for PCS and to move the existing users to higher bands.
Spectrum from 800 MHz to 2 GHz is now allocated heavily in favor of public access for the end user of wireless voice and data services. A total of 180 MHz of spectrum is allocated for cellular and PCS. These allocations are enough spectrum for a minimum of four service providers in each of the major areas now covered by cellular communications. In addition to this allocation, there are others in the same band for one- and two-way messaging systems, dispatch radio systems such as that run by Nextel, and some spectrum is reserved for public safety and other two-way radio users.
Abundance and Shortage
While the general public now has an abundance of spectrum for its use, the two-way radio community, including public safety agencies, is still strapped for channels. The FCC and several organizations such as the Associated Public Safety Communications Officers (APCO) are working on proposals to provide better access to the spectrum for their users. Currently, there is a critical shortage of available radio spectrum for them. Further, because of how allocations were made over the years, many agencies within the same geographic area are not able to use their communications systems to talk among themselves. They have to rely on the use of a second radio in each vehicle or on a dispatcher to relay information between agencies. This, of course, limits their ability to provide emergency services in a timely fashion-a situation that can, and has, resulted in needless delays.
While we, the end users, are busy considering how to use the spectrum that Washington has been so willing to make available to us (if we pay for it), there are hundreds of public safety agencies that are not able to obtain even a single new channel in the band in which they now operate. Many of our public safety dispatch systems are overloaded, and many would like to add data capabilities to their systems. But obtaining even a single new radio channel for such use is either not possible, or requires years of waiting for one to become available.
I have taken the time and effort to present this information because we all need to be aware of the fact that, even though the wireless spectrum seems to many to be an unlimited resource, it is severely limited. Unless this resource is used wisely, it will not be available for the applications that are the most important. Today, we do not have to choose between being able to sit at the beach and hold a full-motion video conference and being able to dispatch a paramedic unit to save a life on that same beach. However, if we continue to treat radio spectrum as an infinite resource, we may, in fact, have to begin making such decisions.
Maybe the FCC as it is now structured, and as its directives are now worded, is not in the best position to allocate and administer the ether, but some form of regulation and control of this resource is necessary to ensure that all users have access to some spectrum. For years we have been working under the premise that all of the potential users of this resource will get some of it-but not as much as they may want or feel they need. Suddenly, we are able to obtain almost as much spectrum as we want as long as we are willing to write the federal government a big check.
I believe that it is important for all of us to realize that we are dealing with a finite resource and that there must be a way to determine the best uses for it. One way to get more spectrum (or, more appropriately, to make more of this limited resource available) is to look back at previous allocations and see what could be accomplished by reallocating some of the spectrum for other uses. Just as the FCC reallocated existing microwave spectrum to PCS and has ordered the relocation of existing users, spectrum currently being held for other uses could be released to form a pool of available channels.
An example of such a reallocation of resources is the recent ruling by the federal government to force the NTIA to release some of the spectrum that has been allocated to federal government agencies so it can be used by the private sector. However, there is another area of spectrum that has, thus far, remained out of bounds. This spectrum is where the upper UHF TV channels are allocated. Channels 7 through 13 were allocated in a different portion of the spectrum than channels 2-6, as were the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) TV channels 14 through 69. A few years ago, the FCC did reallocate UHF channels 70 to 83 and made them available to special service TV (such as educational TV broadcasting), and permitted them to be shared by land mobile radio users (two-way radio systems).
The Television Industry
However, there remain many channels that were allocated for but are not being used for TV systems. If the FCC reallocated UHF TV channels 40 through 69, it would free up an additional 174 MHz of spectrum for other uses. This spectrum is in the range of 626 to 806 MHz and is ideal for two-way radio and wireless communications. This 174 MHz of spectrum could be made available simply by moving the few TV stations using it to other locations within the channel 14-39 range. The cost of such moves could be borne by the new users. (There is already a precedent for this. The new PCS providers have to pay to move existing microwave users.) The cost of moving TV stations would run into millions of dollars as compared to the cost of moving microwave users, which will run into multi-millions of dollars.
How Much Spectrum Is This?
With today's technologies, each of the 29 TV channels could be used for up to 240 two-way radio channels or cellular phone channels. Since radio waves at these frequencies do not travel long distances, it is possible to re-use these channels across the nation without experiencing interference problems. For example, allocating ten of these channels for public safety use would provide a nationwide pool of 2,400 channels-all of which could be divided into national, regional, and local-use channels so that every emergency vehicle in the entire nation would be able to communicate with every other emergency vehicle.
The balance of these channels could be used for a variety of purposes such as more bandwidth for private access, more two-way radio systems, or whatever.
In any case, since the trend in this country is toward more and better cable TV systems and small satellite TV systems, it appears as though these channels will probably be vacated and should become available for reallocation. A strong lobby led by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is preventing such reallocations today. The NAB has been able to hang onto these channels even though they have remained largely unused for years. It is time to tell the NAB to either buy them at auction, as the PCS vendors did, or to relinquish them for other uses.
As we rush toward a world where each of us has an individual phone number that works at home, on the road, and at the office, and as we hear promises that in time these services will be expanded to include data services and full-motion video, it is important that we understand that we are making use of a resource that is finite in scope. And even with the new technologies on the horizon that will enable us do more with this spectrum, it is still a finite resource. As such, it needs to be protected and doled out (no pun intended) in a judicious manner and not just because it can raise money for the government.
I hope that as we move forward we will recognize that there are other uses for radio spectrum than simply being able to call home from the beach. There is already demand for spectrum well beyond what is available today and we must have someone looking at the overall requirements and planning to see that everyone's needs are met. We must also have some form of governmental body that is responsible for allocating this finite resource. To not have someone overseeing how we use this spectrum would be short-sighted and could result in chaos further down the road.
I hope you have enjoyed his walk down memory lane. I have many more articles I have written and perhaps I will resurrect and publish a few more of them this year as we head into our 20th anniversary Wireless Dinner in the spring. I cannot help but remember all of the sponsors and people who stood up on the stage with me and welcomed our guests at these dinners. Many of them are no longer around, many have retired and, I am sure, are astounded by the leaps we have made. One thing I am concerned about is that those who follow us have an appreciation of where we started on this journey and how far we have come. I am concerned that they will think of the Internet and worldwide email capabilities as having been around forever and assume that wireless has always meant voice, text, MMS, and broadband.
When those of us who were thankful to have wireless email at 8 Kbps are gone and those who remain expect it at 25 Mbps, will they appreciate how far we came in how short a time? Will they understand that we still have a lot to learn and do?
Andrew M. Seybold