CTIA 2012: A non-stop spectrum beg-a-thon

NEW ORLEANS - No one will ever say that America's wireless carriers are too proud to beg.

This year's CTIA wireless tradeshow in New Orleans seemed less like an industry gathering at times and more like an infomercial dedicated to forcing the government's hand to free up more spectrum. Start with CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent, who dedicated the vast majority of his introductory keynote address to discussing the challenges carriers will face if they don't get fresh spectrum to use within the next few years.

BACKGROUND: CTIA 2012 preview: Expect lots of spectrum talk

ANALYSIS: LTE spectrum: How much do the big carriers have?

"We simply need more spectrum," he said. "Getting more spectrum is the No.1 goal of CTIA."

Later that day, Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead took up the baton and similarly lobbied for the government to open up new airwaves for mobile data services.

"Innovation is at risk today due to the spectrum shortage that we face," he said. "If additional spectrum is not available in the near-term, mobile data will exceed capacity by 2015."

T-Mobile CEO Philipp Humm, meanwhile, said "the need for spectrum is urgent since it takes a while for new spectrum to be auctioned off and put to use." And Chris Pearson, the president of 4G Americas, said that "if we don't bring out more spectrum, there will be a hard stop sign" on progress in expanding wireless capacity in the United States.

OK, you get the picture: The carriers would really, really like to have some more spectrum. But what, exactly, is to be done about it?

The industry is expected to get about 120MHz of new spectrum from the newly authorized spectrum incentive auctions that will let broadcasters voluntarily put pieces of spectrum up for sale. But as many carriers have noted, such auctions inevitably take a long time to complete, so it's not clear if that additional spectrum from the broadcasters would provide much in the way of immediate relief. The industry is currently lobbying the government to sell off unused spectrum it has in the 2155MHz to 2180MHz band so it can be paired with spectrum in the 1755MHz to 1780MHz band that Congress recently authorized for wireless data use.

During his keynote at CTIA this week, Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski suggested several solutions to the carriers' spectrum needs that didn't involve directly auctioning off spectrum currently held by the federal government. Among other things, Genachowski suggested that carriers invest in "small cells" that can increase their coverage density in areas where they are stressed for capacity; that the government open up an additional 120MHz of spectrum on the 3.5GHz band for additional small cell usage; that the government rescind rules that prevent carriers from operating LTE networks on the 800MHz band; and that both government and industry create a new "spectrum sharing" system where carriers could have access to spectrum in certain areas where the government isn't currently utilizing it.

"It has become increasingly hard to free up clear blocks of spectrum," said Genachowski while explaining the spectrum-sharing concept. "When thinking about government spectrum it would be counterproductive to limit ourselves to two choices."

Pearson, for one, was generally receptive to Genachowski's suggestions but said he wasn't overly enthused by the spectrum-sharing option, which he said should only be employed once other methods have been exhausted.

"When you get into shared spectrum you get into a lot of issues with providing quality of service for customers," he said. "We are open to spectrum sharing if there's no other way to acquire harmonized spectrum."

Taken together, though, all these ideas show is that both carriers and the government will have to take a piecemeal approach to spectrum policy to meet the FCC's goal of freeing up 500MHz of additional spectrum by the end of 2020. And since both the FCC and the carriers seem to have different ideas about the best way to get the job done, you can probably expect the carriers to still be begging for additional spectrum next year at CTIA.

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