The Coming Wireless Spectrum Crunch: 4 Things You Must Know Now

Mobile device usage is going through the roof as more and more users switch to data-intensive smartphones. As telecommunications carriers and the FCC look at the trend lines, there’s an increasing concern that the wireless spectrum available won’t be able to keep up with demand.

What’s in your future given a spectrum crunch?

1. A man’s home is his wireless tower? If your home is your castle, then you’re going to have cell towers in it soon (if you don’t already). One way to lessen the impact of the looming spectrum crisis is to divert mobile traffic onto fiber optics lines sooner. Since most people spend half of their day inside their homes, inexpensive devices in homes that act as mini-cell towers can offload your cell traffic to your home’s broadband line. This conceptually doubles the amount of bandwidth available on the real cell towers, and gives users five bars of access when cooking dinner in the kitchen or sitting in the home office. These devices (known as femtocells) are marketed under different names– Verizon Network Extender (NYSE:VZ), AT&T MicroCell (NYSE:T), Sprint Airave (NYSE:S). Expect these to be pushed and promoted more and more often by carriers as they seek to get you off their towers whenever possible. Similar devices will also make their way into offices, high-rises, airports, malls and other places where a cellular call or data connection can be moved “off the tower”.

2. Cue the Wi-Fi. Most smart phones and an increasing number of regular “feature” phones have Wi-Fi built into them. This allows them to jump onto local Wi-Fi networks first, before getting on the more expensive and constrained cell towers. While this is great if you are sitting down, the standards and interoperability that allow for moving communications with Wi-Fi (think driving 60 MPH down the road) are still being refined. Expect to see more national Wi-Fi locations advertised as part of your mobile phone services (that is, “hot spot” services), in an attempt to offload the towers of cellular loads wherever a Wi-Fi signal can be used instead. Don’t worry about having to manually switch your call from one to the other…phones are getting pretty sophisticated to do this on their own behind the scenes.

3. VoIP anyone? It’s becoming increasingly common to get voice-over-IP (voice over the data connections of the Internet) on your mobile phones. Skype, JaJah, and others allow you to make and receive calls on your phone, using the data portion of your cellular subscription, rather than the voice side of this transmission. Today there are different limitations by different carriers as to how well you can do VoIP on your cell phone — in fact, someone trying to call your phone from overseas on a Skype-to-mobile phone Skype client call might not be able to do so without you being on a Wi-Fi connection. But in an era of constrained spectrum and bandwidth, expect VoIP calling — and its twin sister, Video over IP calling — to get more popular with the tacit consent or active involvement of the carriers. Skype quality is fabulous and quite the alternative to regular voice calling.

4. Pay more, get less. This is the worst case scenario if the efforts of carriers (buying up other carriers and their spectrum – as AT&T is attempting to do with T-Mobile) and of the FCC (who is proposing to repurpose unused analog TV spectrum for mobile networks) don’t keep up with the demand for bandwidth. If mobile spectrum becomes increasingly scarce and overburdened, expect to see mobile carriers raise the rates for data services and/or decrease the amount of data transfer allowed in a particular monthly data plan. Alternatively, we may see carriers attempt to introduce premium pricing models for particularly bandwidth-intensive services like streaming Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) – or block or otherwise restrict those they can’t charge customers for using.

Authors Danny Briere and Pat Hurley are telecommunications experts at TeleChoice, Inc. Mr. Briere has written more than 1,000 articles and has authored or edited a dozen books on the subject. He is often quoted in leading publications and can be seen on major TV networks providing analysis on the latest communications news and breakthroughs. Mr. Hurley specializes in emerging telecommunications technologies. Danny and Pat are co-authors of Smart Homes For DummiesHome Theater For Dummies and HDTV For Dummies. Danny and Pat also co-wroteWireless Home Networking For Dummies, 3rd Edition.