Sleight of hand

An important goal of a magician is to get you to watch the wrong hand. In fact, magicians often tell the audience, "Now, watch my hand." But, in reality, that's the wrong hand to watch. Because while the performer appears to be setting up something magical with the visible hand, the important action is taking place with the other hand. Magicians, just like politicians, don't want you to see what's really happening.

That pretty much describes what the FCC, CES, handset makers and most of all, mobile service providers, are doing with regard to spectrum discussions. Says a Cisco report, "Global mobile data traffic will increase 26-fold between 2010 and 2015. Mobile data traffic will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 92 percent from 2010 to 2015, reaching 6.3 exabytes per month by 2015. "

However, consulting engineer, Steven J. Crowley, P.E. notes in his blog, "There is overlap between the people who prepare the forecast and the people responsible for marketing Cisco's line of core-network hardware to service providers. The forecast is used to help sell that hardware. Put simply, it's a sales brochure. That could be said of many data sources used by the FCC."

Fortunately, a recently released study by Onyeije Consulting, available here, is directing some much-needed light on Genachowski's sleight of hand tricks. The report claims that not only is spectrum not in short supply, but that some of those most clamoring for more of it are already sitting on huge chunks of underused spectrum.

Spectrum versus capacity

The study's authors say the "spectrum crisis is factually revisionist" and that the FCC, and especially the mobile carriers, have misrepresented the facts regarding potential needs and use of spectrum.

For instance, the study notes that much of the spectrum crunch that Genachowski and his NBP author, Blair Levin, claim is coming is based on only three studies. Those data came from Coda Research, the Yankee Group and, you guessed it, Cisco.

In the Onyeije report, the authors note that AT&T predicts that its data usage growth will range between 8 and 10 times for the period 2010 and 2015. Its competitor, T-Mobile, forecasts that its customers' data use will increase by a factor of 10 over a five-year period

Using these predictions, the FCC waved its magic wand and then claimed that it needed 275MHz of spectrum to meet those needs.

However, the FCC's math is wrong. The 275MHz of spectrum needed is actually based on a growth rate of 35 times over the period 2009 and 2015, not 10 times as stated by the mobile phone companies. (See Figure 1.) What's that phrase, "You'll never get more than you ask for." The adage may use poor grammar, but it well represents what Mr. Genachowski and his friends at the CES and the mobile companies are trying to do with respect to spectrum.

Underused spectrum

Then there's the question of unused spectrum. Onyeije notes the results of a 2004 study conducted by the National Science Foundation into spectrum usage in New York City. Over a several-month period, the foundation measured spectrum use over the bands of 30MHz to 3GHz. It found that an average of 5.2 percent of spectrum was in use at any one time. More telling, even when the Republication Party held its national convention in New York City, spectrum usage only increased to 13 percent.

Broadcasters have been accused of "spectrum squatting." Or, as Mr. Genachowski is oft to say, not using spectrum efficiently.

The Onyeije study says that many swaths of spectrum remain unused and some licensees are doing nothing with that capacity. "In Auction 66 for AWS-1 licenses, 'Verizon Wireless spent $2.8 billion for (unused) AWS licenses'; 'AT&T (then Cingular) spent $1.3 billion for AWS frequencies'; and 'cable operators spent $2.4 billion for (currently unused) AWS licenses."

The report says that this amounts to $6.5 billion in unused AWS-1 spectrum and that the carriers are collectively "sitting on $15 billion in spectrum licenses, with AT&T alone warehousing licenses worth $10 billion."

The Onyeije report ends by saying, "Thus, there is no need to rush to oust current licensees (e.g., broadcasters) from spectrum without a full understanding of the extent of underutilized spectrum." Amen.