Regulators need to adopt new approaches to allocating spectrum in shared, dynamic ways, given the rising tsunami of mobile data.
Most of today's available spectrum is not being used or shared efficiently because today's regulatory policies are static, driven by efforts to minimize interference. We desperately need new regulations that enable dynamic allocation of shared spectrum.
Use of wireless networks is skyrocketing, putting pressure on finite spectrum. Mobile IP traffic will increase globally elevenfold over the next five years, and traffic from wireless devices will constitute the majority of all IP traffic by 2016, according to the Cisco Visual Networking Index. Even in Africa, a country like Nigeria is seeing a 132% growth in data year-on-year, according to the GSMA.
The current culture of spectrum allocation dates back more than half a century. It is a static approach in which spectrum is allocated indefinitely to a user.
By contrast, spectrum-sharing allows more efficient use of this precious resource. It is quicker to adapt to changes than traditional methods. The process of clearing incumbents and auctioning exclusive licenses can be lengthy and complicated.
Dynamic allocation of shared spectrum is being used successfully in several countries. The US Federal Communications Commission has allowed access to television white spaces in a dynamic way. It also has proposed spectrum-sharing in the 3.5 GHz band.
A key application for TV white spaces and other forms of dynamic spectrum access is providing more affordable wireless broadband to underserved rural communities. The technology has been tried and tested, but its implementation depends to a great extent on policymakers enabling the necessary regulations and rules.
The Dynamic Spectrum Alliance is a technology-neutral group that aims to increase the use of available spectrum to the benefit of consumers and businesses alike. Its board expects that a variety of different technologies and business models adapted to different circumstances will emerge over the next few years. Its goal is to ensure that the legislative and regulatory framework is in place to support that diversity.
At its upcoming summit in Accra, Ghana, the alliance hopes to take small steps in setting regulations and encouraging pilot projects. Ultimately the group aims to develop plans to connect the next four billion people in emerging economies and also to connect the burgeoning Internet of Things in developed markets. To meet that goal, we must learn to use spectrum very efficiently, indeed.
Professor H Nwana is Executive Director of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance and former Group Director for Spectrum Policy at Ofcom, the communications regulator in the United Kingdom.