Mobile spectrum is a key resource in keeping our smartphones, tablets, and other devices connected to the Internet. Without it, we simply wouldn’t have any connectivity whatsoever while away from a fixed-line.

Unfortunately, as well as being a key resource, it’s also an increasingly rare one. Mobile data usage figures are shooting through the roof as we browse the Web and use more apps and services from our mobile devices, and as the demand continues to increase apace, the network’s task of dealing with it gets harder.

For now, we’re okay, but Ofcom (the UK’s telecom watchdog) has already started looking at ways that more spectrum could be made available for the next generation of mobile services, currently being bandied about under the term 5G, despite there being no technical definition of what this will be when standardized.

So, if Ofcom’s already looking at ways to free up more spectrum so we can keep downloading apps, browsing the Web and doing all the other things we do on a smartphone, tablet and other devices, then what’s the problem?

Growing pains

In Ofcom’s announcement last week, it predicted that by 2030, the UK’s mobile data consumption will have increased 25 times from what it is today, and as such is looking into a range of measures to provide the capacity for this demand, like repurposing specific bands that are currently used for terrestrial TV as usable for 4G or 5G.

However, while Ofcom is looking up to 2030, spectrum analysis specialists Real Wireless say that there’s a capacity crunch headed for the UK by 2020, unless around 300MHz more cellular and 350MHz more WiFi spectrum is made available.

“Although new spectrum provided in the 4G auction has given some breathing space in meeting new demand growth, we will face a renewed spectrum crunch in around 2020 without further action,” said Simon Saunders, Technology Director and co-founder of Real Wireless. “The challenge faced by governments and regulators is how best to manage this demand and ensure that consumers and other wireless users continue to see an improvement in their service, while ensuring other critical services still have access to the spectrum they need.”

These numbers weren’t just plucked out the air either, if you’ll pardon the pun.

To come up with them, Real Wireless used an updated version of its CAPisce spectrum, technology, population and geography modelling tool to evaluate current networks, look at the potential of the latest 4G, Wi-Fi and white space technologies, as well as new frequency bands being considered for cellular use. It was this system that was used by Ofcom ahead of the 4G spectrum auctions at the start of the year.

In response to our enquiries, an Ofcom spokesperson said:

Ofcom is already putting together plans to help meet the growing demand for mobile data services from UK consumers and businesses. We have identified a number of new spectrum bands as potential candidates for mobile broadband in the future. When combined with developments in mobile technology and the introduction of more advanced networks, this will help head off any potential capacity crunch. We are consulting on these issues and look forward to working with industry to address these challenges.

A storm is brewing

However, Saunders told TNW that this isn’t the same old story warning about capacity that we’ve heard before:

Ofcom are doing lots to try and address the problem and free up further spectrum, as per the consultation that they published recently. The main areas that they saw as solutions were in making the spectrum allocated to the Ministry of Defence available to the public sector, and investing in spectrum sharing initiatives – such as white spaces. However, what is important to note about today’s announcement – and why this is not the same old spectrum crunch story – is that our analysis included these potential solutions in its calculations.

The required spectrum outlined in our analysis needs to be found from other sources, perhaps by extending spectrum sharing even further or by allocating new bands to mobile.

Allocating new bands to mobile comes with its own set of problems – finding alternative room for the bands you have to move, for one – but Ofcom will be headed to the ITU’s World Radio Conference 2015 to acquire new mobile spectrum allocations in pursuit of heading the problem off at the pass. However, any spectrum it gets will come from repurposing it from its current use, and users. The result could be what Saunders describes as “highly contentious and likely [to] create an interesting tension between the different public and industry uses of the spectrum”.

Some of the already-identified sectors include TV companies, PMSE (Programme Makers and Special Events – outdoor broadcasters, essentially), satellite companies, any of which could put up some resistance to their spectrum being refarmed for mobile data use. Saunders says that any such resistance wouldn’t be unfounded either:

[The] growth in mobile demand is real, but the pace of it is uncertain. Those industries all need spectrum too, even if they’re perhaps not experiencing a similar rate of growth, but they often need much longer-term certainty of supply. What needs to be done is to ensure we keep all options for the future open to avoid risks, whilst making all final decisions as late as possible.

None of this is news to Ofcom. It’s already aware of the need and is looking into it, but with its plans looking ahead to 2030 and a crunch point predicted by 2020, clearly some other solutions will have to be found and agreed upon by all involved along the way.

If an answer isn’t found and growth continues to increase, operators will have to find other ways of reducing the demand from consumers.

“Primarily, it will become far more likely that operators will have to find ways to dampen the growth in demand, whether that’s through pricing, caps, service barring etc.,” Saunders said. “Operators are getting very good at managing these issues with the aim of avoiding the more extreme consequences of the crunch, but limiting usage will ultimately limit the benefits that mobile is bringing to users, society and even the operators themselves.”

The introduction of 4G in the UK without unlimted data plans has already shown that new technologies don’t necessarily come with equal restrictions as the previous generation of services. In this example, the speeds are faster, but anyone transferring to a limited 4G contract from an unlimited 3G one will feel the need to be far more careful than they had previously been to ensure they don’t go over their data budget. A step forward in one way, but a step back in another.

Mobile technologies are about convenience above all else, which is why it’s essential that an answer to the impending crunch is found, for industry and consumers alike.

Featured Image Credit – Getty Images