The good news is that Tuesday’s New York Times article by Brian X. Chen actually questions claims by the big cellcos — AT&T and Verizon mostly — that we’re running out of spectrum. It edges away from the easy analogy that electromagnetic spectrum is real estate.

The spectrum-as-real-estate analogy is so pervasive that we tend not to think about it. We talk about low frequency spectrum as “beachfront property,” because it is thought to be more valuable. (It is not much attenuated by walls, leaves and air the way higher frequency spectrum is.) We reify that a company can “own” a given frequency band the way we own — and buy and sell — real estate. We say spectrum is congested by increased traffic and we’re running out of space.

The pervasive misunderstanding of how we use — and could use — the electromagnetic spectrum was eloquently addressed in layman’s terms by The Myth of Interference, a 2003 Salon article by David Weinberger that I wish every reporter, legislator and wireless policy “expert” would read. The Myth charts a sensible path towards a physically veridical, technology based approach to the use of the electromagnetic spectrum. Central to The Myth’s argument is the fact that current policy, based on the licensing of frequency bands, was shaped by the technology of the 1920s. Today, as The Myth explains, the technologies of wireless communications are vastly expanded, but regulations are still stuck in the 1920s. And the incumbents want to keep them there.

The bad news is that the New York Times article doesn’t cleanly separate myth and analogy from physics and technology. The article mixes literal, physical reality with analogies that foster certain monopoly-preserving conclusions. The article fails to distinguish which is which. It talks about “slices of radio waves,” it confuses licensing with ownership and it treats Wi-Fi offload as if Wi-Fi were an alternative to the use of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Even the headline — “Carriers Warn of Crisis in Mobile Spectrum.” — isn’t what the story is about. A more accurate headline would have said, “Experts Question Carrier Spectrum Claims.” The lede is buried in the fourth paragraph: “But is there really a crisis?” The article misses key specifics, such as the fact that in the (now failed) 36 billion dollar T-Mobile merger with AT&T, the spectrum was valued at $6 billion, and the fact that only about 10% of cell towers have fiber optic backhaul, which means that cellular data capacity can be limited by old DS-1, DS-3 and microwave backhaul technology rather than by wireless electromagnetic receiver overload.

The result is journalism that’s (perhaps unconsciously) shaped by the industry the journalism purports to question. It is as if the cellcos claim 1+1=3, while a few dissident experts — Martin Cooper, David Reed and me — protest that it is 2, then the true answer must lie somewhere in the range between 2 and 3.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that the Times is beginning to explore the idea that the spectrum-as-real-estate analogy is a regulatory fiction.

The core of the story is whether or not spectrum is a rival good. A rival good is something that when it’s used by one party can’t be used by another. The cellcos say it is. Current FCC regulation does too. But David Reed has repeatedly pointed out that physics — our understanding of physical reality — says otherwise. The article paraphrases him: electromagnetic spectrum is not finite. Not finite. In other words, infinite.

The article also paraphrases Reed saying, “Arguing that the nation could run out of spectrum is like saying it was going to run out of a color.” I explained to Brian Chen that spectrum is literally the exact same energy as light, not some far-fetched analogy. I explained that visible light is a subset of the electromagnetic spectrum. And that a frequency band is not *analogous* to a color, it is literally precisely the same electromagnetic energy as a color, only at a frequency that is outside of the capacity of our visual system. Some of this is captured in the 3.5 minute video that accompanies the article. The video also labels spectrum a public good. Yay!

In the end, the article misses the opportunity to do a “so what.” My so what would be this: Let’s totally rethink regulation in light of today’s technology. If the New York Times said it, I’d jump up and down in celebration.

I won’t belabor the article further. Given all the other reporting on the so-called spectrum crisis, it’s a net win for us reality-based folks. But I will observe that if the New York Times — the most respected news source in the United States of America today — is doing this kind of job on issues my colleagues and I actually do understand, we can be pretty durn sure what it is doing on the war, the economy, health care, education, crime, the climate; on all the big stories of our day. No wonder we’re in such deep shit.

[Note: NYT reporter Brian X. Chen also questioned carrier claims about caps on data usage a couple of months ago. He’s doing a good job on a tough assignment in a harsh environment. When he calls, let’s help!]

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Brough Turner says:

    Very nice! but there is one error…

    About “low frequency spectrum” you say “It is not much attenuated by walls, leaves and air the way higher frequency spectrum is.” That’s not true.

    With respect to air, the atmosphere is roughly transparent from 30 MHz to 10 GHz; the photons go at the same speed and they are not absorbed. Radio astronomers know this. “Radio engineers’ who believe there is more path loss at higher frequencies don’t understand the receiver assumptions that are built into the Friis equation.

    With respect to buildings, both low frequency and high frequencies are substantially attenuated by masonry walls and almost totally attenuated by metal siding. They are also both moderately attenuated by wooden walls and by sheet rock. Most RF enters building via the windows. The difference is higher frequencies are more scattered, especially as the wavelength becomes equal to or smaller than the window dimensions. Scattering is bad for 20th century radio receivers but is good for higher order MIMO systems (4×4 or 8×8) which are just beginning to emerge today.

    With respect to leaves, the situation is more complicated and I haven’t found as many useful measurements as are available for the atmosphere or for construction materials. There is certainly rich scattering that increases with frequency (i.e. with shorter wavelengths). I’ve seen one paper that suggests RF absorption in maple trees peaks when a half wavelength approximates the leave size and then decreases at higher frequencies. The problem is most of the modeling of RF through foliage that I have seen (ITU, mobile industry, etc.) assumes 20th century radio receivers. The other area being modeled is foliage as seen by satellites, Neither are useful for understanding what future, higher-order MIMO systems might accomplish. If anyone can point me at useful data on RF through foliage, I’d appreciate it.

  2. Dave Burstein says:

    Brian’s article had three respected technologists saying there isn’t a crisis and a few lobbyists saying there is.

    I think that makes the substance pretty clear.

  3. Bennett Kobb says:

    Talk about low frequency (LF) spectrum as “beachfront property” can’t be taken seriously. Low frequency spectrum is below 300 kHz:

    and is used for navigation, submarine communications, timekeeping and experimental / hobbyist “Lowfer” operations:

    If there is a stampede of giant telcos who want to bid on LF licenses, I haven’t seen it.

    With regard to the spectrum crisis, most spectrum users, whether commercial, nonprofit, governmental or scientific, argue that they suffer from lack of spectrum. The crises are manufactured, perennial and typically intended to deliver more spectrum exclusivity to the complainants.

  4. Infinite spectrum vs scarcity hype | Freedom to Connect, Future of the Internet, Networks | Weblogsky: Culture, Media, and the Internet says:

    […] (cellular communication companies, former telcos) In fact, spectrum is infinite. [Link] The core of the story is whether or not spectrum is a rival good. A rival good is something that […]

  5. Eric Perlberg says:

    I don’t know anything about this topic but every time I read an article in the New York Times on a topic I do have in depth knowledge about my reaction is the same as yours, the journalists don’t really understand the topic on which they’re reporting and rather than calling out deception and misrepresentations they come up with some compromise explanation that makes no sense.

  6. Martin Cooper says:

    Here’s a letter sent to the NYT before I read your excellent post.I wrote a parer based on a talk at George Mason U. entitled “The Myth of Spectrum Scarcity” that I’d be happy to forward to anyone interested.
    To the editor:

    The Article “Traffic Jam in the Ether” (NYT Wednesday, April 18, 2012) presented balance views (including mine) of the so-called “spectrum crisis” but it may have missed two important points. First, there is agreement among all parties that much more spectrum capacity will be needed in the coming years. Increased Internet traffic will require 20 to 40 times more wireless capacity than exists today. The most optimistic estimates of spectrum available to operators by redistributing spectrum from other services such as the military and television would add only about 20 or 30% of additional spectrum to their existing portfolio. This is insignificant; adoption of existing and new technology is the ONLY solution Secondly, the “traffic jam” is not the only problem; wireless data services are much too costly today. Advance technologies such as smart antennas and dynamic spectrum access will, when adopted, substantially reduce the cost of wireless data.

    Rather than trying to reassign inadequate segments of spectrum among licensees, we should be aggressively, in effect, create new spectrum by using the spectrum more efficiently. Technological advances have made spectrum virtually infinite for more than a century and we know enough to be confident that this will continue for at least 50 years.

  7. the terminal of geoff goodfellow says:

    the primary reason why our US cellular/mobile networks are so pathetic is the Gross Underinvestment by Our Dearly Beloved CMRS Network Carriers in additional base stations.

    this was laid bare by Sanford Bernstein analyst Robin Bienenstock last year — excerpting from under “Sad prospects for improvement in US mobile networks”:

    … Sanford Bernstein analyst Robin Bienenstock noted that a primary reason why US [cellular/mobile] networks are so pathetic is because the American government doesn’t regulate how carriers build their [cellular/mobile] networks as European nations do, providing the example of rules mandating a minimum number of base stations that, if not achieved, will result in the carriers losing their spectrum allocations.

    “Let’s take California and Spain as an example, ” Bienenstock wrote. “Telefonica has some 33,000 base stations in Spain (yes, miserable, economically imploding Spain). Conveniently, California is a similar size, has a similar topography, and has very similar population density. In California, AT&T has just over 6,000 base stations. The spectrum allocation per pop in these two operators (TEF in Spain and AT&T in California) is remarkably similar. A similar analysis looking at New Jersey and Massachusetts vs the Netherlands shows similar results.

    “Why are European [cellular/mobile] networks so much denser than American networks? In large part the answer lies (again) in regulation. In Europe, the spectrum auctions of last decade came with ‘use it or lose it clauses’ that obliged operators to build a minimum of base stations or face sanctions from fines to loss of spectrum. The result is clear to any American visiting Europe… and more frustratingly obvious to any European visiting the States.”

    this manufactured “Spectrum Crisis” and the bamboozlement/deception/hoodwinking/snookering by the carriers has been going on since “The Red Herring fast one” PAC*TEL pulled off shortly after the original A & B band 20 MHz CMRS allocations were deployed in Los Angeles on the grounds that the coming Olympics to the area was gonna see one big cellular traffic jam of massive proportions…

    PAC*TEL successfully faked out the FCC in to giving them an extra 5 MHz of Totally Unnecessary and Undeserved (and free!) CMRS 850 MHz spectrum (instead of just investing in and developing additional sectorized) cell sites… the same lies and deceptions have been “working well”/promulgated/promulgating ever since…

    hopefully articles like the NYT, knowledgeable and respected folks like Cooper, Isen and Reed along with blogs like this can finally get The Facts/Truth out to educate/enlighten Our ignorant/naive journalists, FCC decision makes, members of congress and other responsible parties. it’s High Time an end was put to this shameful “Spectrum Crisis” sham…

    the base station vendors ought to love you all and this message, what with Europe having around 5.5 times more base stations deployed in similar spectrum, topography and population densities than we “here”…

    geoff goodfellow

  8. Isenberg Defends “Infinite Spectrum Capacity” Claims « High Tech Forum says:

    […] on his blog, David S. Isenberg defends the claims he made to New York Times reporter Brian X. Chen on infinite spectrum: The pervasive […]

  9. the keyboard of geoff goodfellow says:

    there is no spectrum crunch — that’s just a bogeyman story that the telcos tell the government when they want a handout…


    AT&T Admits That The Whole ‘Spectrum Crunch’ Argument It Made For Why It Needed T-Mobile Wasn’t True

    from the well,-implicity dept — excerpt:

    You may recall that back when AT&T was trying to buy T-Mobile, a big part of the argument was a spectrum crunch around its wireless efforts. The company insisted — strenuously — that it would not be able to expand 4G LTE services to more than 80% of the population unless it had T-Mobile. That argument ran into some trouble when a lawyer accidentally posted some documents to the FCC which admitted that the company could fairly easily expand its coverage to 97% of the population of the US without T-Mobile (and, in fact, that it would cost about 10% of what buying T-Mobile would cost). Suddenly, the argument that it absolutely needed T-Mobile rang hollow — even as the company continued to insist exactly that. Still, the FCC suddenly was skeptical and AT&T, seeing the writing on the wall, gave up on the merger…

    geoff goodfellow