What is wireless spectrum and why is it so important in telecommunications?

What is spectrum?

In wireless communications, signals travel from their source to a receiver via radio frequency. Everything from television, radio, GPS and mobile phone services transmit information in bits through the air in this way. The collection of radio frequencies that are available for transmission is known as wireless spectrum.

If we take radio as an example, when tuning it to your desired channel you are ‘telling’ the radio which frequency to ‘listen to’ and therefore which stream of data to convert to audio output. No two radio stations will transmit over the same frequency, at the same time or in the same area because it would result in interference and distortion.

This works in the same way across any type of service sending or receiving data via radiowaves.

In each part of the world there is a managing group or agency (usually part of the government or collection of governments of the broadcast area) which manages, allocates and auctions spectrum to companies or organisations that then use that portion of the spectrum for their services.

What is spectrum allocation?

The amount of spectrum available to operators is finite, and therefore must be auctioned to ensure that each company has a fair chance to obtain more spectrum if desired.

The groups that control the spectrum allocation also decide which frequencies can be used for which purposes, for example for the use of mobile phones, generally spectrum between 700MHz and 2.6GHz is allocated. These allocations are usually based on the optimum wavelengths available for each service.

Most of the spectrum has now been allocated, and operators looking to increase their service capacities aren’t able to acquire more.

The problem is that as the industry continues to grow, and more people purchase devices that rely on wireless connectivity such as smartphones, there is a much greater need for more spectrum to become available.

How to free up spectrum

There are a number of ways that more spectrum is being allocated around the world including:

  • Releasing spectrum previously allocated for government use
  • Those who hold licenses to spectrum, but do not actively use enough of it could be required to resell it for commercial use
  • Reallocation of less used/less desired communications spectrum to be replaced by more popular forms such as mobile broadband services

One of the main problems is that smaller carriers are struggling to compete within the spectrum auctions as larger companies are able to bid much higher for the available spectrum, effectively drowning out any chance of competition.

To get a better understand of how spectrum is allocated in the UK, click here to view Ofcom’s interactive mapping system.

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