You might have heard the word ‘spectrum’ in the news lately, but do you know what it is? Spectrum is made up of radio frequencies that are allowing hundreds of millions of people like you to use wireless across the country. With all of us using smartphones, tablets, traditional cellphones and other wireless devices so much these days, demand for wireless spectrum is rapidly increasing. In 2016, wireless data traffic reached yet another record high. In all, traffic totaled 13.72 trillion MBs—the equivalent of 1.58 million years of streaming HD video —an increase of 4.07 trillion megabytes over 2015. Over the past two years, data use has increased 238 percent. Many experts agree that we need more spectrum, and soon, to keep delivering the kind of wireless service we all expect and want.
What is Spectrum?
You can’t see spectrum, but it’s what allows your wireless device to send and receive information instantly – and there’s a finite amount of it. The more advanced functionality of modern-day phones, such as streaming music, videos and downloading apps, requires more spectrum to transport information than just what’s needed for voice calls.
An Analogy: Highway Lanes
Think of wireless devices like vehicles, and spectrum like lanes on our nation’s highways. Over the last decade, we’ve experienced a tremendous increase in the number of ‘cars’ (wireless devices), and in the amount of time they spend on our wireless ‘highways’ (the network). To meet consumers’ ever-growing demand, wireless providers need more ‘lanes,’ or spectrum. Without more spectrum, many experts believe we could be facing a significant wireless traffic jam in the near future.
The Looming Crisis
There’s no question that consumer demand for wireless service is growing, and many analysts have projected that growth will be massive in the coming years. For example, Cisco’s Visual Networking Index predicts that globally, mobile data traffic will increase 10-fold between 2014 and 2019. The wireless industry will need more spectrum in order to keep up with consumer demand and ensure we get the quality of service, better coverage and faster speeds that we want.
Finding a Solution
In 2012, Congress took a good first step towards solving the spectrum crunch by passing the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, which included provisions to make a chunk of spectrum available for commercial use. Much of that spectrum will most likely come from broadcasters and be offered in voluntary auctions, and the federal government is working to free up some more. No matter where it comes from, more spectrum is needed to satisfy our growing demand to use wireless services and products in our personal and professional lives. Many experts agree that more spectrum also means more jobs and investment, and that’s good news for our economy. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. Congress, the President, and the wireless industry all believe that we need to address this situation and find a way to make more spectrum available, sooner rather than later.