Monday, December 26, 2011

The Next Decade of Bandwidth - Part I

The recent disintegration of the merger between AT&T and T-Mobile might seem like a victory for consumer choice versus telecom monopoly, but it was never really about that. Even if these two GSM carriers became one, there would still be the counterbalancing force of CDMA carriers Verizon and Sprint. It wasn’t about owning the space. It was about owning the bandwidth.

The future of computing is in the cloud...Is there any doubt in your mind about this? OK, consider that no sooner had the deal fallen apart than AT&T went out and bought $1.9 billion worth of spectrum from Qualcomm with the FCC’s blessing. Verizon just announced that they bought $315 million of 20 MHz AWS spectrum from Cox right after buying $3.6 billion for 122 spectrum licenses from Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

What’s with the bandwidth buying frenzy? It’s all about mobility. There are two laws of physics that must be dealt with to satisfy our appetite for everything on the go. First, you have to use wireless spectrum. You can’t be trailing a wire everywhere you go, even if it is a nice fiber optic cable. Second, the more bandwidth you want to support the applications, the more bandwidth you need to transmit through the air.

Not all bandwidth is created equal. We’ve gotten used to cell phone services delivered on the lower microwave frequencies around 2 GHz. The next deployments will be over the old TV frequencies around 700 MHz. That’s significant because the higher up the spectrum you go in MHz and GHz, the less those transmissions can penetrate into buildings. Light is really nothing more than a really high frequency transmission in the same electromagnetic spectrum. Just about anything will stop a light beam. At the other end of the spectrum are VLF (Very Low Frequencies) around 100 KHz that go around the Earth, hugging the surface. Those are used to synchronize our “atomic” clocks with national standards in Colorado.

The other thing you should know about the spectrum is that if you want more Mbps you need more MHz. If you want Gbps of Internet bandwidth for your mobile device, you need GHz of spectrum to carry it. This is why VLF isn’t much good for anything but sending low bandwidth voice and data long distances. Microwaves have the capacity to transmit massive amounts of data, but they tend to be line of sight. Even heavy rain or tree foliage will stop satellite TV in its tracks.

This is where life gets tough for the FCC. AM radio stations are flickering off and going dark one by one, but those frequencies aren’t of much use for video transmission. Shortwave radio is being usurped by the Internet. Only problem is that the shortwave channels don’t have massive data carrying capacity, either. What’s really desirable are those juicy frequencies between 200 Mbps and 2 Gbps. That range includes UHF television and GPS satellite bands. Note the big squabble between LightSquared’s 4G broadband and the L band GPS satellite systems. Both services want the same band around 1500 MHz for different purposes and they can’t both be there without interference.

What AT&T bought from Qualcomm was UHF channels 55 and 56, formerly assigned to broadcast television and repurposed for Qualcomm’s FLO TV. It wasn’t hard to see this coming. FLO TV was an idea that came too late. Who wants to buy a separate device that only picks up a few video channels now that you have a smartphone or tablet that can get anything over the Internet? AT&T will dump the FLO technology and press those channels into service for LTE, the 4G mobile broadband standard.

Mobile Internet is becoming a black hole for spectrum and 4G is the standard that will try to feed it. Nothing else is fast enough, although WiMAX and EVDO could be if they had the momentum behind them. It appears that nearly all carriers, including WiMAX pioneer CLEAR, are headed to the LTE standard within the next few years. Everything else will shutdown from lack of available transmission channels.

What everybody wants is a single big pipe from the Internet to whatever they are using. That could be a smartphone, a laptop or tablet computer, an Internet-powered radio, weather radar and information system in their car, high definition television set or applications still to come. Giving them that without turning over the airwaves completely to the Internet will be the challenge.

In Part II, we’ll take a look at what is likely to happen next in the battle for bandwidth, especially in the lucrative UHF TV spectrum being jealously eyed by cellular carriers for 4G expansion.

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