Wireless Internet Only for the Elite?

wireless only for the eliteWireless Internet is a necessity for those who can afford it and yet the high cost of access is an insurmountable barrier for most people. More efficient use of the radio spectrum using existing technology can solve this problem and yet, our regulatory policies do little to encourage efficiency. The office of the President and the FCC should do more to motivate carriers and manufacturers to develop and deploy spectrally efficient technology like multi-antenna systems (smart antennas) and microcells. Redistribution of existing radio spectrum does little to solve the real problem and will only delay its ultimate solution.

The most important benefit of wireless communication is improving productivity; increasing the wealth that makes people live better, function better. This has been proven repeatedly since the Handy Talkie in World War Two enabled soldiers on the battlefield to work as teams. We have reached the point where many businesses cannot function profitably without some form of wireless communications. But, the most vivid examples of wireless productivity improvement are in the poorest places in the world where farmers use the village cell phone to optimize the price they can get for their crops, where fishermen let each other know where the fish are, and where job openings are broadcast and filled in real time.

Voice communication is availabe at reasonable prices in most places. This is not true of wireless data. Despite the ability of wireless access to improve their lives, such access is beyond the reach of most people in the world because of its high price.

This is simply wrong! For the past 110 years, technology has allowed us to reduce the price of wireless by a factor of two every 3 1/2 years. And yet, for the last several years, the price of wireless data is actually increasing.

The overt reason given for high data prices is the shortage of spectrum. We’ve never had a scarcity of spectrum in the past because technology has alway kept up with the increasing needs and most often stayed ahead of these needs. Have as exhausted the ability of technology to continue multiplying the available throughput of spectrum adn thereby reducing prices? Not by a long shot. So what’s the problem?

The easiest way for wireless carriers to increase their capacity is to acquire more spectrum. Of course, we know that there isn’t any more spectrum so the only way to acquire more is to take it away from someone else. The office of the President has directed the Department of Commerce to redistribute 500 MHz of radio frequency spectrum from existing services, ostensibly to resolve “shortages” in other services. This is a well-intentioned effort but, in the long run, almost irrelevant. There have been numerous predictions of what the future needs for data throughput will be. Cisco has predicted that, within the next five years, we will need 20 to 40 times more throughput than exist today. It’s difficult to understand how an incremental increase of 10 or 20 or even 30% will do anything to fulfill a need of 20 to 40 times.

The only solution to the challenge of making wireless data available to the people who need it most is the adoption of spectrally efficient technology. That technology exists, has been proven, and actually makes our wireless systems more cost-effective. Wireless carriers do not own the radio spectrum. We, the public do. The government must adopt policies that motivate carriers to accelerate the adoption of technologies that can make wireless access to the Internet available to everyone, not just those who can afford today’s higher costs.