Smartphone data explosion and spectrum

A recent report on the mobile spectrum crunch (PDF) by Rysavy research and MobileFuture highlighted the urgent need for wireless spectrum to avoid a potentially stagnant mobile broadband market due to the bandwidth capacity crunch.  It cited an interesting statistic from a 2009 Cisco report that smartphones use 30 times more data than ordinary “feature phones”.

With the mobile market rapidly converting to smartphones as hardware prices come down, the industry is facing explosive data consumption demand while capacity isn’t growing nearly as fast.  If more spectrum isn’t made available, mobile carriers will be under increasing pressure to limit wireless usage.  This could have an adverse effect on mobile broadband adoption.

The Rysavy report contained some interesting data on spectrum versus wireless capacity, shown in “Table 1” shown below.

Credit – Rysavy and MobileFuture.

The table shows how under typical usage scenarios (lower signal level than ideal), LTE only delivers 1.5 times the capacity, and much of that gain is due to the use of multiple radios in the 802.11 standard.  We can also double the number of cell towers while cutting down on power levels per tower, but that approach always runs into the massive bureaucratic red tape of “no new cell towers in my area”.  Even with easy cell tower approvals, doubling the number of cell towers is extremely expensive.  Cellular cellular carriers are already spending tens of billions of dollars a year.

Even if we assume we can double the number of cell towers and switch to LTE, we’ve only increased capacity threefold, and that isn’t nearly enough to handle the onslaught of affordable mass production smartphones.  The mobile industry desperately needs more radio spectrum, and if they don’t get it, the result will be stagnation in one of the most vibrant sectors in the economy.