Your phone carrier: out of space, getting restless

A surprisingly good primer on the spectrum crunch reveals some issues with smartphone math.

The FCC view of the wireless future, as charted by CNN
Chart via CNN.

I don’t normally expect to find calm, reasonable explanations of modern technology issues in cable news outlets. So, seeing the headline “Why your cell phone bill is going up,” I wondered what was in store: aggrieved victims of overage charges, perhaps, or maybe a quick jab at corporate profits. But despite even the “airwaves are full” headline, CNN’s three-part series on the “spectrum crunch” is actually a pretty good starting point for understanding a lot of seemingly tinfoil-hat-level machinations of the big four U.S. carriers.

Here’s the core of the matter, as CNN puts it in part one:

The problem, known as the "spectrum crunch," threatens to increase the number of dropped calls, slow down data speeds and raise customers' prices. It will also whittle down the nation's number of wireless carriers and create a deeper financial divide between those companies that have capacity and those that don't.

When cellphones were becoming a mainstream consumer offering, the FCC offered up relatively narrow chunks of bandwidth across different markets, hoping to bolster competition. There was competition, but once phones advanced from calls and tiny text messages to, basically, millions of computers constantly looking for connections, those narrow bandwidth chunks aren’t cutting it anymore.

That’s why Verizon would buy spectrum space from cable providers for $3.6 billion. That’s why T-Mobile demanded not only $3 billion cash for its “breakup fee” before its acquisition by AT&T fell through, but also picked up a chunk of spectrum space for their troubles. And that’s why the wireless business is nigh-impossible for a smaller entity to break into now, except on a very small, very regional scale.

What’s the solution, then? Wireless carriers are trying as hard as they can to get regional television stations, satellite providers, and other carriers of excess bandwidth to sell off their sweet, sweet air space. They’re also, how do you say, “educating” customers about the bandwidth they’re using, and by now, almost every major carrier is throttling speeds and sending notices to the most active users of even supposedly “unlimited” data plans. Neither of those is exactly a win for consumers, as large capital expenditures and fees eventually show up in their monthly payments.

The other solutions posed by CNN as a solution to the “cell phone apocalypse” (and in that headline, we are reminded once more of cable headline business as usual) are along two lines: help the carriers build out their infrastructure and spectrum space, or all of us start getting better about how we use their networks. One attempt at a kind of city-wide WiMax supplement, ClearWire, is dying on the vine. So the only true way out of the spectrum crunch is going to have to be something new, inventive, and significant. Smartphones aren’t becoming less popular, by any means. And it’s now a matter of mainstream news concern, just how grinding the wireless future looks.

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