Users Experience Symptoms of the Spectrum Crunch

by on August 7, 2012 · 4 comments

Some 77 percent of wireless phone users who use their phones for online access say slow download speeds plague their mobile applications, according to a new survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Of the same user group, 46 percent said they experienced slow download speeds at least once a week or more frequently (see chart below).












While the report, published last week, does not delve into the reasons behind the service problems, it does offer evidence that users are noticing the quality issues wireless congestion is creating. Slow download speeds are a function of available bandwidth for mobile data services. Bandwidth requires spectrum. The iPhone, for instance, uses 24 times as much spectrum as a conventional cell phone, and the iPad uses 122 120 times as much, according to the Federal Communications Commission FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.  As more smartphones contend for more bandwidth within a given coverage area, connections slow or time out. Service providers and analysts have warned that the growing use of wireless smartphones and tablets, without an increase in spectrum, would begin to degrade service. There have been plenty of anecdotal instances of this. Pew offers some quantitative measurement.

While technologies such from cell-splitting to 4G offer temporary fixes, the quality issue will not be fully addressed until the government frees up more spectrum. While the FCC hasn’t helped much by blocking the AT&T-T-Mobile merger and joining with the Department of Justice in delaying the Verizon deal to lease unused spectrum from the cable companies, at least the agency has acknowledged the problem. Right now, as Larry Downes reported last week, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), which has been charged with the task of identifying spectrum the government can vacate, is stalling.  It would be nice to see the FCC apply the aggressiveness it brings to industry regulation to getting NTIA off the schneid. At the same time, the Commission needs to put aside its ideological bent and do what it can to make more spectrum available in the short term.

  • Steve Crowley

     While I agree U.S. cellphone users suffer from a number of service
    degradations, I think your faith in spectrum as the main solution is
    misplaced.  Spectrum is part of the solution, along with network
    topology (small cells) and radio technology.

    Analyses done by Qualcomm point to the efficacy of small cells compared
    with spectrum. A reasonable number of small cells placed in a macrocell
    can increase capacity in that macrocell 10 times. In contrast, one would
    need 10 times the spectrum to get the same capacity increase without
    small cells. Qualcomm itself says such techniques will be the main way
    forward to increase capacity, not spectrum.

    This statement, “The iPhone, for instance, uses 24 times as much spectrum as a
    conventional cell phone, and the iPad uses 122 times as much, according
    to the Federal Communications Commission,” is incorrect. The FCC has made no such statement.

    As far as anecdotal evidence does, my experience is that I get much
    better cellphone service in Japan and South Korea than in the U.S., even
    though those countries dedicate less spectrum to mobile broadband than
    the U.S., according to CTIA.

    See, also, my comment to Larry Downes’ piece.

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  • Steven Titch


    You don’t seem to be arguing with me as much as putting forth a case for spectrum sharing technology. I’ve looked over some of your blogging and noted that you seem to be concerned that the FCC is being swayed too heavily by Cisco’s numbers, which make a strong case for more spectrum and indeed, have been cited regularly. At the same time, what do you feel would be the timeframe for commercialization of the small cell technology you describe? Have any service providers begun to explore it? Considering that 1) the cost of the next block of spectrum stands to be extremely high, and 2) we don’t know when it will come up for auction, it would stand to reason service providers would be at least hedging their bets and doing at least some cursory investigation of this technology, Are they?

    Finally, you took issue with my use of statistics regarding iPhone and iPad spectrum consumption. I have checked my sources and indeed, I cannot find an FCC technical document that states this. However, Genachowski did use them in a speech to the CTIA convention in 2011, however. I have updated my post to reflect this. Is his source questionable?


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